opia - n. the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable--their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque--as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there’s someone standing there, but unable to tell if you’re looking in or looking out.
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From Ancient Greek opia, plural of "opium" + opia, "of the eyes." Thus, eye contact is the opiates of the eyes. Sure it's quite a trip, but what does it really reveal?
One thing I find fascinating about eye contact is how utterly mutual it is. In order to get access to someone's eyes you have to expose your own at exactly the same time. Like poker. You lock eyes across a party, and ante up in order to play. "I see your sublimated frustration at being out of place, and raise you an empathic nod." "I see your flirtatious glance, and raise you a tension-diffusing comedic eyebrow wiggle." You push your chips forward, then you show your cards.
Eye contact is such a delicate and dangerous art. Even holding it a half-second too long can radically change its meaning, like a wayward brushstroke on a painting that can radically shift an expression from dismissive to neutral, or from flirty to wary to sardonic, or from suspicious to threatening to seductive to unspoken bond to wordless gratitude then back around to murderous.
The final line "So we're all just exchanging glances, trying to tell each other who we are" is deliberately vague. You are trying to tell others who you are, but you're also trying to hint to them who they are. That sort of external identity reinforcement sounds weak and self-conscious, but damned if it isn't true. Perhaps a more fitting card game metaphor is Indian poker, in which everyone can see your card but you. So you have to watch their faces for cues. Without them, your identity will feed back on itself, rounding up into grandiosity or down into depression, and you go crazy.
THE DICTIONARY OF OBSCURE SORROWS
From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a web series that defines newly invented words for strangely powerful emotions. New episodes every Sunday, on TestTube and YouTube. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language-to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don't yet have a word for. The author's mission is to capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior. Each sorrow is bagged, tagged and tranquilized, then released gently back into the subconscious.
Opia. So much can be said in a glance. Such ambiguous intensity, both invasive and vulnerable—glittering black, bottomless and opaque. The eye is a keyhole, through which the world pours in and a world spills out. And for a few seconds, you can peek through into a vault, that contains everything they are. But whether the eyes are the windows of the soul or the doors of perception, it doesn't matter: you're still standing on the outside of the house. Eye contact isn't really contact at all. It's only ever a glance, a near miss, that you can only feel as it slips past you.
There’s so much we keep in the back room. We offer up a sample of who we are, of what we think people want us to be. But so rarely do we stop to look inside, and let our eyes adjust, and see what's really there. Because you too are peering out from behind your own door. You put yourself out there, trying to decide how much of the world to let in. It's all too easy for others to size you up, and carry on their way. They can see you more clearly than you ever could. And yours is the only vault you can't see into, that you can't size up in an instant.
So we're all just exchanging glances, trying to tell each other who we are, trying to catch a glimpse of ourselves, feeling around in the darkness.