When Meeting a Friend, Wash Your Eyes


In Confucian tradition, when a friend has journeyed to see you it is dignified to wash your eyes before receiving him, or her. Don’t get it, neither did I when I first heard it. Yet I do it every day now.

Washing our eyes symbolizes the importance of cleansing our prejudices and preconceptions in order to stand ready to see someone anew. We can then allow a person to change more freely and continue on their own journey of growth. We can also prevent static thinking that locks down the relationship while encouraging true listening and attentiveness.

I was searching for an angle on a human needs article as I pondered the importance of honoring another person on their journey in life when a friend who is a professional therapist stopped by to chat. I asked for her suggestions. Apparently, I needed to wash my eyes to see myself anew. I had writer’s block.

We talked of the ever growing understanding of emotional capacity as portrayed by a recent BBC documentary, “A Spy in the Wild.”  The producers planted life-like animatronic animals within groups of the same species in their natural habitat. I’ll cut straight to the highlight of the show. A troop of monkeys welcomed their new robotic kin into the social group with customary grooming and playfulness, but when a mischievous young member dropped the robot from a great height something unbelievable happened. The entire tribe fell silent, showed a sense of respect for the loss of a member, and grieved for the fallen.

Connection, mutuality and physical and emotional safety are fundamental needs of all people. We need one another. We want one another. The question is how can we make life wonderful for others and ourselves and not proverbially drop a companion off a tree?

The therapist friend and I spoke of the innate emotional depth of humans. Our similarities and differences and how to bridge the gap to a loving connection.

She pointed out that though we are 7 billion unique realities unfolding we have some fundamental similarities like grief and loss, joy and happiness. She attributed patience, tolerance, and empathy as evolutionary values to overcome our differences. We use feelings to help tell us if our needs are being met and collectively use needs to express the beauty of the human experience.

She recounted a story of her son when he was his former 5yr old self. He came home from kindergarten engaged to a little girl. The young son was as happy and joyous as any man who belonged to someone. He felt “belonged.” A day later this “little harlotte” (her words, not mine) was engaged to a new boy. Her son felt a depth of loss and grief previously unimagined.

The young therapist learned two things that have remained with her throughout her career. First, she could not believe emotions like these could be experienced by one so young. Second, the little harlotte was trying to satisfy her need for connection with others like anyone else. Though, her strategy may have been unique.

This is when we circled back to this concept of washing our eyes.  She said that we need to wash our eyes every day when we see our children because we just don’t know when it’s been the worst day of their lives, if they lost a friend, were abused, or have looked into the abyss of human sorrow. The same goes for partners, parents, siblings, and friends. When we do not wash our eyes we either miss the change that is occurring in them, or we are not giving them the room they need to grow. So, I encourage you to look at your loved ones from fresh eyes with a clean slate, engage them in some friendly argument, challenge them, but in the end allow them to express who they are for the first time, each time.

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