Looking away

I recently found myself carrying out a bit of research in the ten minutes I had waiting at a bus stop.  Not at all scientific or statistically significant, it was probably more of a intense ten minute observation of people to be fair.

On the same bit of pavement where I stood, there lay in a doorway a homeless person under a sleeping bag.  Around him or her was a small scattering of coffee cups, plastic drinks bottles and a few meagre possessions.  The sleeping bag had seen better days.

I looked carefully at this sad sight and then I noticed the people walking past on the pavement, in the space between me and this person in their sleeping bag.  Here’s what I noticed.  Every person seemed to look directly at me as they walked past.  This sparked my curiosity.  Why was everyone looking right at me?  I looked behind me and saw nothing of particular interest.  I wondered if it was something about me.

However, as I kept observing, I noticed that just prior to looking at me, at about 5 metres away, I saw every single person cast a lightning quick glance at the scene in the doorway.  As they got closer, they looked away.  They physically moved their heads and looked away.  And I happened to be in the direct spot where someone’s head would turn in order to look away from the homeless person.

As I looked more carefully, I saw something else.  Once they laid their eyes on the person in the sleeping bag, their facial expressions changed.  Some winced.  Some scowled.  Some looked slightly irritated.  Some looked nervous or anxious.  And as they got closer, their gazes shifted in my direction.  Then they carried on.  And I realised they weren’t looking at me.  They were just not-looking at the homeless person.  Or perhaps they were not-looking at something bigger: homelessness.

So as part of my “research”, I began to role reverse with each one as I saw their faces.  I’ve written about role reversal before, but briefly, it’s a core technique in psychodrama and sociodrama whereby you take up the position of another person, adopt their body posture, facial expressions and any other cues you may have which will allow you to step into their shoes and get a sense of what it’s like in their world.  Momentarily, you immerse yourself into BEING someone else.  Some have likened it to a very deep experience of empathy.  When we role reverse, we open up the possibility that we might be able to understand one another much more deeply and with much less judgement.

In my role reversals, some of the words that came to me included:

  • “If only they would pull their socks up….”
  • “That’s just horrible.”
  • “I can’t bear to look at that.”
  • “Oh, that is heartbreaking.”
  • “Oh, I am so tired of seeing that kind of thing on the streets.”
  • “Why doesn’t someone do something about that?”

Perhaps the looks I saw on people’s faces were about that one person, perhaps about something even bigger and even more overwhelming: homelessness.

When I settled into my seat on the bus, I began thinking about life at work.  Political game-playing and points scoring.  Casual interpersonal violence or unkindness.  Power games.  Work that offers little or no joy or sense of purpose.  Work that is increasingly stressful and leading to health issues, both physical and mental.  We know these things are present, we feel them, we live them, but do we also look away from these things?

We need to eat and pay our bills, so we work.  For increasing numbers of people, despite the best efforts of businesses to become more human-friendly, they are feeling less so.   We may momentarily look at the situations we find ourselves in and rail against them, but our energy gets sapped when we think too much about them.  They are too big.  We may have a good moan over a glass of wine in the evening, but this changes little.  We may even try working for a different company, only to find the same problems exist but in a slightly different configuration.

So perhaps we defer to the same tactic as the people walking past me and the homeless person.  We look away.  We glance at the problem, then our lightning fast brains work out that we can’t really change anything so we stop looking.  It helps us to cope.  We know it’s still there, but in the face of something that seems huge, intractable or insurmountable, we default to a survival strategy: look away.


Just as with homelessness, there is rarely a simple cause and effect going on with those workplace woes.  Workplaces are living systems; complex, unpredictable, uncontrollable, uncertain.   When faced with something that seems so huge and complex, it is natural to feel overwhelmed.  Where would we start to change things?  If we apply the “…but I’m only one person” approach, we may give up and just decide to keep our heads down while we earn our crusts.

Looking away seems to me a coping role.  Training in psychodrama, I learnt about the work of Lynette Clayton who devised three classifications of roles that we play in our lives: progressive, fragmenting and coping.  In every living moment, we respond to our worlds by taking up a “role”. As we meet new situations in life, we are constantly learning new roles, from the day we are born until the day we die.  Progressive role responses are those which move us forward in our lives. These are the ones we are enacting when we feel whole, full of the joys of life, fully in the moment, in a flow, with all our internal resources and knowledge at our finger tips.

When things seem overwhelming and we find it hard to access the best of ourselves and come up with a life-giving response, we often default to fragmenting or coping roles. Fragmenting roles correspond to that within us which is “dysfunctional” and are related to distress and feeling out of control.  Fragmenting role responses are backward-looking, fear-based, stuck, regressive.  Coping role responses are those which may have served us well in the past,  but have become almost habitual and which are more oriented to surviving rather than thriving.  While they are not as deadening as coping roles, they are also not terribly life-giving.  We just get by.

When we are drowning in office political game-playing, struggling to come up for air, we may find the most progressive and life-giving thing eludes us.  Rather than do something about it, the safest way to survive might just be to look away.  This seems entirely natural.  If we begin to look closely at our office horrors, rather than take a fleeting glimpse when we brush up against them, we might get in touch with the despair, the rage, or the shame we actually experience.  Who wants to feel those things anyway?  If we began to actually feel our despair deeply, we might start crying and never stop.  If we began to feel our anger deeply, we might start screaming and never stop.  I have actually heard people say those last two things to me in the course of coaching sessions, so deep were the dehumanising effects of their workplaces.

“There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves….we have a responsibility to deal more kindly with each other.”  Carl Sagan

When we go to work, we become part of the workplace society.  Some people are more active participants in those societies, some less so.  Whether we get active or not is entirely up to us.  By being active, we can begin to make a difference: to ourselves and perhaps to others.  The most important bit is how full of life we begin to feel when we are active, rather than passive, members of our societies.  We begin to feel a sense of agency rather than a sense of being done to.  Active citizens are the ones that can make a difference.  And the scale of that difference is irrelevant.  As Charles Eisenstein said in “The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible,” there is no difference between someone who dedicates their life to large scale social change and someone who takes time off work to look after an ailing parent.  The world becomes different in both cases.

One person who I find especially inspiring is Celine Schillinger.  She started a ball rolling by seeking out others who were less than satisfied with some of the situations in her business and began to effect change.  Small at first, not without challenges, but she persevered.  When I speak with her and hear her talk about the things that have happened, I see life coursing through her.

The lesson for me is that even if we can’t change everything, we can start somewhere.  Euan Semple talks about changing things one conversation at a time.  Making conscious choices about how we respond to some of the challenges in our worlds is central.  Noticing ourselves when we rub up against them, noticing if our response is to look away in order to avoid feeling anything, or to feel something, even if uncomfortable, and from there to resolve to try something different, can make a difference to the quality of our day-to-day lives.  Feeling our feelings (they will pass), talking about it with someone, finding fellow travellers who feel something similar, all of these can be a start.

So many of us look away from the hard things.  Something is there, but we can’t see it very clearly.  However, it needs looking at if something is going to change and if we are to feel differently about it.

What if we saw a lonely human being under a smelly sleeping bag, rather than homelessness?  What if we saw a stressed and overworked fellow human being rather than office power games?  What difference could it make to their lives and ours if we stopped for just a moment and had a conversation?  And then, who knows what ball we might start rolling?


4 thoughts on “Looking away

  1. John, I liked this post very much! It surely makes me think. I do wonder the extent to which our (very own) societal induced addictions ( e.g. to work, to getting-and-spending, to a career) keep us closed off, and even numbs us, to what’s really happening to us and the world all around us.

    Again thanks for your thoughts,
    greg gull

  2. Thanks for this. A thought. What would have happened if, every time someone looked at you directly, you switched your gaze back to the man in the doorway?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s