Peek-a-boo. I see you.
We are never too old to play this universal game, apparently.
Not so much the peek-a-boo part. That is mostly for kids, and parents of course. (According to Psychology 101, from the repeated exercise of peek-a-booing, alternating between seeing and not-seeing, the child learns permanency of objects. We figure out fairly early on that the parent does not actually vaporize and rematerilize every time we close and open our eyes.)
But the “I see you” part.
That is for everybody, all the time. We never quite get it completely. There remains until we die a continual need to see and be seen.
I got caught playing it last week in a grocery checkout line, of all embarrassing places. Let me tell you.
My grocery store debacle.
I was stressed because of an anniversary cake that I had special-ordered. When I went to pick it up I was shocked at the size and the price. It was much larger, more expensive, and frankly much heavier than I had intended. I staggered over to the nearest cash register and plonked it down, fuming.
As the cashier turned to me, the fellow behind spouted out indignantly, “I was here first!”
My normal response would have been to immediately apologize and defer to him but I was in no mood to be accommodating. Instead, I challenged his assertion.
“I don’t think so. I had my cake down before you.”
“I was here first,” he repeated, this time loudly, his accent thickening. “You didn’t see me. You walked right by me.’
“Go ahead if you are in a hurry. I am not,” I replied dismissively.
“No, I don’t want to go in front. That is not the point. You didn’t see me. You walked right by without noticing.” He was fairly yelling at this point.
I was beginning to fear a full scale altercation with my thirty pound cake in peril. Fortunately, the clerk had checked through my purchase and was moving to call security. I muttered a half-hearted apology, quickly grabbed my cake and beat it out of there, my back still turned to my antagonist.
After I exhausted all the “I was right. You were wrong,” scripts and the steam had blown off for both my purchase and the confrontation, I began to reflect on how sincere, vulnerable and profound the gentleman behind me (in front of me?) was. He very quickly and clearly identified the real offence. It was not that he would be delayed for two minutes while I checked out ahead of him but that I had failed to acknowledge him as a person. I had offended his personal dignity. I had not seen him or validated his worth as a person. I wondered, given his ethnicity, how often this might be his life experience.
More lessons from this simple yet layered, game of peek-a-boo.
We are social creatures. Truth be told, we do not exist on a psychological or spiritual level without the acknowledgement of another. (Psychics is now postulating that matter itself does not exist except in the act of relating with other matter!) While the child is growing secure in the permanence of the parent, s/he is also learning from their parents’ acknowledgement, their own permanence and independent identity.
An African greeting summarizes this truth well. On approaching, one party initiates the greeting by saying: “I see you,” to which the other responds, “I am here.” From a logical standpoint it would make more sense to reverse the greeting by first asserting one’s physical independence with: “I am here.” To this the other would rationally respond, “Yes, I can see you.” (dah)
But the greeting is not intended to communicate one’s physical independence but rather our inter-dependence as people. It asserts that even though I am a physically separate from you, as a person I do not exist without your acknowledgement.
Let’s explore the peek-a-boo game one layer further.
Think back to your years of playing peek-a-boo. The pleasure from the game for both parent and child is derived primarily from the expression of delight on the other’s face as they are rediscovered. Such deep, rich, soulful affirmation is provided by the sparkling eyes, the warmth of the smile, the radiance of the face. This is the language of love, of soul affirmation. If the child cried every time they rediscovered their parent or the parent frowned after each peek-a-boo, it would be psychologically damaging to both. It is the affirming, non-verbal cues that serves to build up a positive sense of self.
A dear friend and gifted therapist (and occasional tangero) facilitates in the healing of inter-generational trauma. He begins by sleuthing through the family lineage to find the person (living of deceased) who was overlooked, not acknowledged or seen. The simple (though not easy) act of seeing, valuing and affirming this person for who they were/ are is often in itself sufficient to resolve generations of family dysfunction!
Let’s take peek-a-boo to the dance floor.
Tango includes several rituals than underscore the importance of seeing and being seen. There is of course the dress code starting with the shoes and moving up from there. Then the cabeceo, in which we indicate our desire to dance with someone by making - or avoiding - eye contact. Add to this, in Buenos Aires at least, the protocol of facing each other on the dance floor and chatting for 15 seconds or so before you engage in a dance embrace, presumably to ensure that you know who you are dancing with.
Then there are the other elements of engagement on the dance floor that are more subtle, more easily neglected or overlooked and in the end, perhaps more meaningful because they are not scripted but are offered out of the generosity of the other’s heart. Extending one’s hand as an invitation to dance, engaging in eye-contact, smiling, remaining soft in the embrace. All of these are critical, non-verbal ways of honouring your partner and acknowledging your delight at the prospect of sharing the next few moments of intimate space with such a beautiful human-being. (I do not say this in the least bit glibly but feel it deeply in my soul whenever I dance.)
The opportunity can be missed so easily. We can shuffle absentmindedly onto the floor and quickly fall into each other's arms without eye contact, without comment, without a smile or any acknowledgement that we know or particularly care about our dance partner.
"Peek-a-boo, I see you" is one of the spiritual disciplines of dancing the tango.
I am both seeing and being seen in a caring and loving way by my peers, people for whom whom I care and who care for me. It is this satisfaction and deep soul-nurturing that I take from the dance floor and into my wider world of relating.