An array of faces at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, January 13, 2024)
It’s still that time for resolutions, or at least new year reflections. But before I share what I’d like to improve on during my own 2024, let me say that I recently looked at a woman sitting across a restaurant table and talking – well, complaining – to me. I looked at her face.
Some context. I enjoy people-watching. When I’m in cafés or other public places, like the nearby park, I’ll easily invest the time to watch and wait for, maybe, someone in a conversation to smile, or even break out in laughter.
It’s a remarkable thing to watch someone laugh without care. I think there’s a beauty in it. And this is important, at least if we put stock in what Dostoevsky said in one of his novels, that “Beauty will save the world.”
The Russian writer was alluding to the deeper and more mysterious beauty of Christ’s incarnation. But, broadly speaking, if we’re interested in things like beauty and truth in this wobbly, old world, it seems to me that anyone need not look further than the human face.
There are now about 8 billion faces around this world. Many are beautiful. The woman across the table from me, I imagine, once had such a beautiful face. At least in the conventional sense. Her younger version likely attracted some so-called male gaze. But along her way she’d lost something. Inside. And her face showed it.
This is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he once told a friend that he disliked a certain person because of his face. The friend found this dreadful, retorting that nobody can be held responsible for his or her face. On the contraire, said Lincoln. Anyone with adequate life experience is completely responsible for the face that they present to the world.
Funny enough, Lincoln – who had health conditions and was once kicked in the head by a horse – had a face that nobody would put on the cover of GQ magazine. Even so, that well-known face still radiated a gentle and disarming likability. The woman across from me had a different face, one I’d never imagine in laughter, never mind laughter with any abandonment.
So be careful what thoughts you allow to churn inside your head. Because if you think horrible and ridiculous and ungracious thoughts for long enough, with each passing year your face will become more horrible and ridiculous and ungracious.
(Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” explores these important matters rather nicely if you’re looking to add to your 2024 book list.)
On the other hand, fill your mind with gracious thoughts, and, you get the idea. It’s cause-and-effect. This is the universe’s mechanism. We become, for better or worse, the choices that we surround ourselves with.
In one fascinating variation on this, some spouses can even look more like each other as the years go by, developing similar facial features as they grow in empathy and love for each other. The phenomena is called emphatic mimicry.
(This isn’t to be confused with the phenomena of dogs and owners sometimes looking similar, which is called mere exposure effect. It’s likely caused by people unwittingly choosing dogs that resemble themselves, especially around the eyes.)
So what’s my aspiration for my own 2024? Just to look at people’s faces better. In the eyes. It doesn’t come naturally. A painfully shy boy, I only changed, somewhat, after entering the world of newspapers and realizing that I’d be a rather hopeless reporter if I couldn’t look at people.
Further, on another level, if we’re going to love our neighbour – and let’s assume most of us want to at least get along with our neighbour, even for our own self-interest – then we first need to look at our neighbour. Even those neighbours who are less than beautiful.
Then maybe we’ll see them with compassion, one half-blind human to another, looking outward with grace. This too is something to work on. For anyone. Any year. Certainly 2024 needs it.