Saturday, 5 September 2015

Face to Face

Extract from “Your Many Faces” by Virginia Satir

Life for me is like an ocean, with waves sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes smooth, sometimes rough; so sometimes I’m high, sometimes I’m smooth, sometimes I’m low and sometimes I’m troubled. To carry the ocean analogy a little further, the current is life and the waves are essential for the movement of the ocean and for all the life that it holds inside. Waves are a natural response to all of the forces in the universe.

I am the same way, my faces are natural consequences of my being a human being, living and growing, and I need to know that storms as well as the beautiful sunshine are part of life. So I take pride in my stormy face, my sunshiney face, and I accept them as natural for the context. I don’t have to put on a happy face when I feel stormy. I can put on a face that belongs with that. And I don’t have to put on a face of doubt when I feel sunshiney inside.

...The face truly is a fascinating place...

As I mentioned in a previous blog I'm on a bit of a health kick at them moment. Going for long daily walks has become one of the many lifestyle changes I have put into place. I got a little ambitious the other day and decided to walk from my home in Altrincham to Lymm and back, following the Trans-Pennine way. It was quite an epic walk to be fair, I believe it took about three and a half hours in total. On the journey I took great delight in watching people as they approached and the many different facial expressions they pulled. I empathised with some, especially the joggers who looked somewhat pained as they ran towards me. No doubt towards the end of my walk I was pulling a similar face. In fact just as I was reaching the end of my journey a friend passed me going in the opposite direction on her bicycle - I hadn’t noticed her coming towards me as I was now focused on getting home, face forward – as she passed she commented “all this walking isn’t good for your health” I then recognised her and blurted out a “hello”, followed by a nod and chuckle of recognition.

There was also another moment a little earlier in the walk when what looked like a wolf’s head suddenly appeared by the side of me. It was one of those dogs that look just like a wolf, it was a moment of fright that took me by surprise and brought images of “An American Werewolf in London” to my mind and the two American tourists David and Jack being savaged as they walked the moors. A little over dramatic I know, but it’s what flashed through me as my fright instinct kicked in. The owner who was running with the dog just called “Don’t worry he’s ok, you just remind him of someone”. It appeared as if the dog just wanted to get a good look at me, face to face. As they ran on I thought to myself I wonder who I remind him of; I wonder what he recognised in me, that he has seen in someone else. 

As I was walking the following story played over in my mind;

There is a story told of a rabbi in ancient times who gathered his students together very early one morning, while it was still dark. He put this question to them: "How can you tell when night has ended and the day has begun?"

One student made a suggestion: "Could it be when you can see an animal and you can tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?"

"No, that's not it," answered the rabbi.

Another student said: "Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and you can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?"

Again the rabbi answered: "No."

After a few more guesses the students said: "Well, how do you tell when night has ended?"

The rabbi answered: "It is when you look on the face of any man or woman and you see them as your brother or sister. If you cannot do this, then, no matter what time it is, it is still night."

as I continued walking I thought to myself do I always recognise every face I see as my brother and sister? Well not always it seems, I do view people with suspicion and distrust at times. Don’t we all? My fright mechanism can be sparked off, just as easily as everyone else’s. 

Facial recognition is hard wired into us. Apparently we can recognise a friend or foe, from their facial expression, from quite a distance. I for one am glad I still have a good vision and can pick up many things from distance, so long as I am facing forward and looking. It would seem I’m also good at picking up, almost intuitively, how a person is feeling from their expression. I have often taken one of those on-line quizzes that test your ability to identify emotion from facial expression. Whenever I take them I always seem to score 100%. I think that this dates backs to childhood and learning how to pick this up in the people around me, it was an early developed defence mechanism. There are advantages and disadvantages to this...

Now all this got me thinking about the word “face”. It seems to have many meanings. Etymologically it comes from the Latin “Facia” and “Facies” meaning appearance, form, figure, countenance. It seems that “Face” literally means “form imposed upon something”. Now from this the many understandings of the word “face” have developed. Think about how many expressions are involved in the word face. Such as:

Face up, face into, facing something, face off, face forward, saving face, the face of, faceache, face to face, the face that launched a thousand ships and many more…

Now each and every face is unique, no too are alike, each speaks of each individual life. Each changes with mood and circumstances too. We have one face and yet each face changes with our every mood. Abraham Joshua Heschel captured this perfectly when he said:

“A human being has not only a body but also a face. A face cannot be grafted or interchanged. A face is a message, a face speaks, often unbeknown to the person. Is not the human face a living mixture of mystery and meaning? We are all able to see it, and are all unable to describe it. Is it not a strange marvel that among so many hundreds of millions of faces, no two faces are alike? And that no face remains quite the same for more than one instant? The most exposed part of the body, it is the least describable, a synonym for an incarnation of uniqueness. Can we look at a face as if it were a commonplace?”

There is power in the face, perhaps even danger too. Many religions recognise this, hence the wearing of the veil, who’s original meaning was to protect those that gaze into the face. This is why veils can be found in holy places too. This brings to mind Exodus chapter 33 and an interchange between Moses and God. It recounts how God lovingly protects Moses from looking into his face, after granting him favour and recognising him. Moses so longed to see God’s face and therefore asked to see it directly “Pray thee, show me thy glory.” Of course he could not, for that would have destroyed him.

There is a real power even in a human face, for after all do we not also bare the image of the divine? To truly look into another’s face can be overpowering, frightening and make us feel a little vulnerable. To look at another face to face is a powerful experience, but also a little scary. You could say that it is truly awful, in the original meaning of the word. As to truly look at another’s face will fill us we awe. As no doubt it would if we looked truly at our own face. Look what happened to Narcissus as he became transfixed by his own reflection.

Remember that etymologically face originally meant “Form imposed upon something”. Interestingly John O’Donohue said that the “Face is an icon of creation”. In Anam Cara he stated that “The human face is an artistic achievement. On such a small surface an incredible variety and intensity of presence can be expressed. This breath of presence overflows the limitation of the physical form. No two faces are exactly the same. There is always a special variation of presence in each one. Each face is a particular intensity of human presence.”

It is the face that reveals the person. It shapes who we are perhaps even shapes our very future. David Whyte in “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship” states that:

“We do not often admit how much the shape of our face can be an invitation to others or a warning to keep away. Our face influences our future by what it invites or disinvites. The way we face the future actually creates our future as much as individual actions along the way.”

He illustrates what he means by telling the story of two guests at a party that he hosted at his home. He stood at his door with his eight year old daughter welcoming guests. He described his daughter as being very shy with strangers and of hiding behind his legs and just waving a hand at the guests as they arrived. This apparently all changed as one guest Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk arrived, a man who had achieved great things through his presence and openness and welcome. Whyte writes that:

“At sixty, his face was so full of life and happiness and welcome and happiness that my daughter ran out spontaneously from behind my legs and held her hands out toward him. I was taken aback by the sudden courage of my hitherto reluctant daughter, but I could see what she was running toward. Satish’s face was an invitation to happiness itself. Seeing him always makes me want to practice the set of my own face as a kind of daily discipline. I only have to see him and I want to be as naturally happy and appreciative as he is, and more importantly he makes me want to show it.”

Whyte then describes another face that was the polar opposite of Satish’s that sent his daughter scurrying once again behind his legs. Whyte writes:

“A man whose face seemed to carry not only past disappointments, but also a sense that it was only a matter of time before it was disappointed again. This man’s face seemed almost hungry for circumstances to betray him.”

Whyte writes that as he observed these two faces together, all night long he could see with absolute clarity that these two faces had radically different futures in store for them. It mattered not what they did or would do, or what would happen to them. He could see it in what they invited or disinvited into their lives. One was open and welcome, while the other was closed off and disappointed. He could see it, because it was written all over their faces.

It really matters how we face life…

The human face is not a common place. Each one is unique and each one reveals how we face life.

And it really matters how we face life. The very shape of our features can be a warning to others to keep away or an invitation, a warm welcome. There is immense power in each of our faces. This power will influence our futures and that of those who we come into contact with. Our face influences the future by what it invites or disinvites into our lives. The way that we face the future actually creates our futures, just as much as our individual actions along the way. In not just about what we do, or do not do, but the spirit in which we face the things that we do.

How are you facing life today?

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