Sometimes, all it takes is a moment of true presence with another person for a profound shift to happen.
The scene: mid-October, 2015, New York City. The World’s Largest Eye-Gazing Event. I’m a helper for the event, and I’m set up in Herald Square, in front of Macy’s. I carry a sign that reads:
Where has the human connection gone? Share one minute of eye contact to find out.
Truthfully, I had no idea what to expect from that day. I certainly didn’t think my core would shift in a way I could never have imagined.
Thousands of people walk through Herald Square daily. Today, as they pass me, some are curious. Some ask questions, and many choose to sit and experience the one minute of silent eye contact. Others point and laugh. Quite a few over the age of 60 call me a hippie and tell me Vietnam is over. I have nothing to protest. It’s clear I represent something to them, and they’ve written me off. What I didn’t get in the moment was that I had written them off as well.
That is, until a dapper elderly gentleman walks out of Macy’s. He comes from an era in which men wore suits to work every day. A time when “dressing down” didn’t mean a T-shirt and jeans, but trousers and a button-down. It was a time when a man had to ask a woman’s parents for permission before taking their daughter on a date. When many people didn’t have sex until they were married. A time when the entire family ate dinner together, all at the same table, without television, video games, iPads, or cell phones. They were present. They talked to one another. One tribe under one roof. It wasn’t necessarily a better time, but it was a different time.
I see him looking—practically staring—at my sign. He asks me to come closer so he can read it. I do, and offer for him to join me for one minute of eye contact. Much to my surprise, he accepts.
For some, eye contact without speaking can be quite vulnerable. I gather this is the case for him. As we gaze at one another, I watch as tears well in his eyes. I watch as his body begins to quiver. I watch, and wonder what he’s thinking. How he’s feeling.
The minute ends. He says, “We did it your way. Now can we do it the way my generation does? We like to talk.” I giggle and oblige. Something inside of me knows it is important that I say yes.
It becomes apparent that sitting down with a stranger and openly speaking with them about anything is something this man has never done before. He seems to see it as an opportunity, and starts by sharing with me who he used to be.
He is a man who fought in two wars. He is a man who started his own company and was, at one point, CEO of it. He is a man who, over the course of his career, made more money than he could ever spend in one lifetime. He is a man who married and had children. Looking in from the outside, most would judge him and his life as “happy.” But while it may have been at one point, that is no longer the case.
Curious, I ask questions. He senses that I’m genuinely curious, and that I won’t judge his answers. It turns out that despite having all this money and a family that loves him, he feels alone and depressed. He lacks any sort of loving touch (both sexual and non-sexual).
Yes, we talked about sex. And yes, the elderly still desire it, as much as some would not want to think about that. I ask whether touch is one of his love languages. He doesn’t know about love languages, so I explain them to him. He says yes, touch is definitely one of his, and he misses it. He can’t name the last time he was touched. At all.
I ask if I can put my hands on his knees as we continue to chat; he says yes. When I place my hands on his legs, I feel his body relax. From time to time, I find myself taking his hand and holding it. He continues to share. He says he feels sad to no longer be looked at as a sexual being. He’s disheartened because being in his 80s, his body is breaking down (as typically happens). It’s slowing to the point where it no longer feels like it’s his own. Tears again well in his eyes.
As he speaks, I picture what it would feel like to be him. He is technically successful, and seen as such by both the public and his family. He is technically revered for all he has done and been in the world. And now…well, now he feels invisible. Those who once looked to him for advice or as someone they looked up to now, no longer do. The man he once was seems to be gone.
I begin to wonder how many others in his generation feel the same. Abandoned, disregarded mostly because of age, bodies slowing down, or minds not able to keep up with the technology of our time. A deep sadness takes over my entire body. Rather than being seen for his wisdom, his life experiences, and what he has to offer, he is now not even seen at all.
I’m struck by visions of what I witness daily, people huffing and puffing because they’re behind a slower, elderly person. Irritated they have to teach someone from that generation how to use a cell phone or download an app, they forget the things these people have to offer: wisdom.
Those in the generations before us have rich histories and a wealth of knowledge to share. Yet unlike many tribal communities, where elders are respected for their wisdom and life experiences, a lot of us ignore them. In many tribes, from Native American to Africa, the elderly are the storehouse of knowledge for things like family lineage, religious rituals, lore and myth that explain tribal identity, as well as knowledge about survival. Our elders also have such knowledge. They’re just waiting to be asked.
Our conversation continues for about 30 minutes. Toward the end, I picture myself in my 80s, feeling what he’s feeling, after experiencing a lifetime of what he’d had. I imagine myself sitting there in front of a 40-year-old man, feeling sad, lonely, frustrated, my body missing touch.
I shock myself with what I think next. I decide that if this man wanted to kiss me, I would let him (I could tell he was attracted to me). I also find myself judging my thoughts. I am afraid of what others would think if we did kiss and I shared the story, afraid of what they’d say. Would they think I was weird? Crazy? Would they get it, or would they see me as a freak?
Then, I let it all go. The love and compassion I feel for him feels bigger than myself. It feels bigger than any negative judgement or comment that could be said to me. It feels more important to have this man who barely feels like he exists anymore and now believes he has nothing to offer, to understand that he has everything to offer. That he still matters in the world. That he is loved.
When it is time to part ways, he asks if he can hug me and kiss me. I say yes, silently letting him lead, choosing what type of kiss it will be without him knowing what I was thinking. We embrace and he goes in to kiss me. He lays his lips on mine and rests them there for a few moments. He sighs, closing his eyes and smiling faintly, his shoulders relaxing. We do this three times before saying goodbye. He says he just fell in love with me. He says he has never had someone listen like this, understand him this way. He says I am better than any therapist he has ever had.
His words say this. His eyes just say, “Thank you.”
Sometimes, all it takes is a moment of true presence with another person for a profound shift to happen. Just a moment. I believe this was one of those times, for both him and me. We were revived in a way. Revived in a way that neither of us knew our hearts and souls needed. By paying attention to his life, I was able to become a part of it.
If we’re lucky, we get to live a long, healthy life in which our minds and our bodies remain mostly intact. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be treated with love and respect, and be regarded like we still had something to offer right up until our very last breaths?
I kissed a man in his 80s (more than twice my age), and it shook my heart, mind, and soul to the core. Maybe it broke me a little bit. Maybe it pieced me together stronger.
To the man I shared a kiss with in Herald Square on October 15, 2015: I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. But I know your spirit, and I have something to say about that:
I see you, and you are beautiful.
Sandy Rosenblatt is a writer, blogger and speaker that has been featured in Huffington Post, Huffington Post Live, AOL News, US World News and Report, NY Daily News, Everyday Feminism, Femsplain, YourTango, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Inforum. She is a nature junkie and cannot resist a good pun.