When I was in high school, I walked a tightrope of friendship and romance with a boy I had known since Kindergarten. Each day we sat side by side in homeroom. After he had hurt me in some way—maybe he had lied to me, ignored me, or disappointed my hopes—he would walk into class and quietly say, “Don’t look at me.”
I knew, even back then, how to communicate through words; however, to him, an honest look in those moments conveyed more than anything I could say or write. My friend knew that I could see beyond the posturing of a teenage boy. I saw his potential, strength, and soul. In the moments when he chose to be less, he couldn’t bear to look me in the eyes.
There’s something profound about eye contact. Too little of it, and we feel invisible. Too much of it, and we feel uneasy. When Tim and I began dating 26 years ago, I felt uncomfortable when he would gaze at me. “Stop looking at me,” I would implore. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered a term for what was happening: Tim wasn’t showing me attention; he was practicing attunement.
One definition explains that “attunement describes how reactive a person is to another’s emotional needs and moods. A person who is well attuned will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on another person’s emotional state.” I had excelled at attuning to another; yet I was unaccustomed to being on the receiving end.
A few years after Tim and I married, I began working at a small advertising agency in Birmingham, Alabama. The owner was a kind and creative man named Jesse. Even though I had no experience as a copy writer, Jesse hired me and nurtured my craft. Over time, my coworkers began to jest that I was “Jesse’s girl” because he placed such confidence in me.
Several weeks ago, Jesse died, and as I have remembered this man who became my mentor, I’ve recalled the way he would look at me each time I entered his office—his eyes would light up and a broad smile would cross his face. I felt so “seen.” One lovely piece written in remembrance of him explained, “Jesse saw the best in people. He looked at the heart and declared folks to be worthy, included, and welcomed.” Yes. In the presence of attunement, one feels truly seen, known, and deeply valued.
After I left my job with Jesse, Tim and I started a family. When our children came along, I had ample opportunities to practice attunement. I am grateful that when the boys were very young, I saw an interview with author Toni Morrison. In it, she explained attunement in a way that profoundly moved me. She said:
It’s interesting to see: when a kid walks into a room, your child or anybody else’s child, does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for. When my children used to walk in the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up. You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. ‘What’s wrong now?’ Let your face speak what is in your heart.
In her personal reflection of Morrison’s interview, bestselling author Brené Brown recalls, “Her advice was simple, but paradigm-shifting for me.”
Let your face speak what is in your heart.
These words were paradigm-shifting for me too.
I realized that sometimes I failed to show such attunement to my sons, my husband, and others. When I was busy or distracted, I would fail to give them my full attention, and when I was frustrated, my default reaction was to withhold eye contact. It might seem an inconsequential slight; however, it is actually incredibly weighty. This lack of attunement deprives someone of the gift of acknowledgement and esteem. I know it is cruel because I have received such slights in the past, and they convey the message that I am invisible and unworthy.
Prompted by Morrison’s words, I tried to cultivate the habit of delight in my sons’ presence. Oftentimes, this meant I ignored whatever task was at hand—folding laundry, paying bills, cooking dinner—to look at them. Whenever my eyes met theirs, I could feel love and joy radiate from my face to theirs. These moments, sometimes lasting only seconds, communicated more than my words ever could. I believe that the thousands of times I have looked at Seth and Reed in this way have made them secure in the fact that they are seen, known, and loved.
Of course, attunement isn’t merely about eye contact; however, it starts there. I am grateful that I have experienced such attunement—from Tim, Jesse, and many other kind, loving souls—for it taught me that Morrison’s words are true: our face really does speak what’s in our hearts. Disinterest or delight, irritation or affection, jealousy or joy…it only takes a glance to communicate what can build someone up or tear someone down. As for me, I want to look through a lens of love so that those who I encounter will know that they have been seen.
Susan Tucker spends her days mothering her two teenage sons, teaching middle school English, and savoring rare moments of quiet and solitude. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her sons and her husband of 23 years. Susan finds life in a beautiful story, an authentic conversation, worship music, and ultimately, in Jesus, the giver of all good gifts.