A few weeks ago, early on in the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, a friend of mine asked what I thought about her church community sharing the peace by touching their hands together in front of their heart, the way some Asian cultures and religion do. Or the high-five emoji the meaning of which was overwritten as prayer hands because so many people thought that’s what it was. She was reflecting on whether it would be respectful and appropriate to adopt this way of greeting one another as a way to share ‘the peace’ with one another in church without making physical contact.
I’ve noticed that since the social distancing rules came into effect, people haven’t just been avoiding one another physically. They’ve been avoiding one another’s gaze. Even more than is usual in London, I mean.
Every religion has a way of sharing a message of peace with others. Namaste, in Hindu religion means ‘the light in me honours and recognises the light in you’. This bleeds into many cultures and languages. ‘Adieu’, the French for farewell, actually means ‘I commend you to God’, or in English ‘good-bye’, which is a contraction of ‘God be with you’. Both Hebrew and Arabic have variants of ‘peace be with you’. In modern Anglican churches, sharing ‘the Peace’ is an important element of the service. It is usually simple – an invitation to shake hands and greet the people seated or standing around you, often with a smile and a ‘peace be with you’, and a response of ‘and also with you’.
The social distancing rules, and the virus they aim to protect us from, have thrown people off. On my many government-mandated daily walks, I’ve tried to smile at passers-by only for them to look hastily away, or look at me with what feels like open animosity.
Now, I’m the type of person who tries to make eye contact and a smile with everyone I meet. I get that not everyone feels that way. It does take a little bit of your valuable energy to acknowledge those around you. But I do it because it reminds me that the people I encounter are human beings with an endless universe within themselves, just like me. They are not brainless background characters in the video game of my life. And I do honestly believe it makes people feel better. At the very least, it makes me feel better.
So I’ve been very interested in this strange impulse. In a way, it makes a bizarre sort of sense on a psychological level – that if we’re being told to avoid our friends, family and neighbours entirely, that we would withdraw even from sharing eye contact. But I think we have to resist this impulse.
When religious and social gathering are on pause, it’s even more important to share the Peace with the people you encounter, even if that’s only one or two people. Let’s resist the urge to draw inwards completely, lift our eyes, and greet the people we see, if only with a smile or a nod.
Simply making eye contact is a hugely important act of intimacy – one of the only ones which hasn’t been taken away from us. Now is the time to use it all the more. There is incredible intimacy in eye contact. That’s why people avoid our gaze when they’re shy, or lying!
There’s true companionship in simple eye contact and a smile. Let’s not forget that.
Peace be with you.