I made myself watch James Franco cut of his own arm with a dull butter knife and no anesthetic. I was in a theater seeing 127 Hours by myself (matinee shows are the best!) and I remember my visceral reaction to the scene; while flailing all over the seat I could hear myself gasping in shock and horror repeating no, no, NO! over and over again as chills spiraled down my spine and my arm hair stood on end.
I similarly made myself watch every painful and awkward scene of Shame, and for both our sakes I won’t go into details. I decided if it was important enough for this particular director to include in the film, there must be a reason and I wanted to experience it.
I’m not especially haunted by images so I can watch disturbing scenes on screen. And whether or not that’s true for you, this isn’t just about movies.
When was the last time you stared at something without blinking? Without looking away. Without shielding your eyes because it was hard to look at. Or because you got bored or tired or realized it would require too much work to stay engaged. Or maybe it exposed a truth about the world or about yourself that you weren’t ready or wanting to deal with.
Remember staring contests as a kid? Your eyes burning and quivering with dryness. Set on winning you alternate between squinting your cheeks up and then pulling your eyebrows high to give your lids some space to stretch out. Then, in a fleeting and seemingly inconsequential moment, without wanting to or even realizing it happened, you blink. And it’s over.
There’s a lot to look at in life. And a lot of it isn’t pretty or easy. A lot of it is complicated, and requires our time, energy, and sacrifice. But to hold the weight of what is, I think we first need to stare without blinking: a discipline that requires intention and patience (and maybe a few eye drops along the way).
Until we stare into the situations and relationships and politics of what’s around us – staring to explore, to question, to learn; staring without blinking at what’s uncomfortable or concerning – we don’t stand a chance of actually doing anything. Of changing or moving our own selves, let alone bigger scales.