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When Irish eyes are smiling

‘Matilda’ is probably my favourite Roald Dahl story but, ‘Danny, the Champion of the World’, comes a very close second. As a children’s author, Roald Dahl’s storytelling techniques, engaging plots, conversational tone and delightful characters are loved by children and adults alike.

But it was with new eyes that I read the following description from ‘Danny, the Champion of the World,’ and it struck me as powerfully profound when considering the challenging circumstances we currently find ourselves in.

A global pandemic, social distancing and lockdown restrictions were not the setting for Danny’s world, but the lesson provides us with a beautiful modern day perspective.

'I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it's impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren't feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I've also learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you but his eyes stay the same. It's sure to be a phony’.

[Roald Dahl, Danny the Champion of the World]

As we have had to navigate a strange new world, from behind masks, eye contact has been the sole connector we have had in initial communication with another person - friend or stranger.

The impact has been significant.

The eyes have always been hailed as a ‘window to the soul,’ and eye contact, as a means of non-verbal communication, has been recognised as influential on social behaviour.

As social distancing has dictated the terms of relational and social interaction, eye contact has become the judge of our mindsets and perspectives.

So what have our eyes been saying?

It has been an interesting social exercise to observe.

In the beginning, as we tentatively ventured out to public places to purchase essentials, eye contact was reluctant; portraying skittishness, fear, wariness and suspicion. Many avoided eye contact. The experience left one feeling empty, lonely, isolated and sad. The masks seem to hold an invisible force and power of erecting a social barrier to any real communication. Silent messages - ‘stay away,’ and ‘it is dangerous to engage with you,’ - made many feel like social pariahs.

That is why reading Roald Dahl’s description was like a refreshing balm to the soul - a compelling reminder of the power of eye contact and the life-altering impact that smiling eyes can have. Because even from behind a mask, the genuine happiness of heart cannot be disguised. The eyes cannot hide the bubble of cheerfulness, drawing another in.

Welcoming eyes create an irresistible invitation and connection as they crease in the corners and twinkle with contagious joy.

Even though I cannot see your upturned mouth, I can see your eyes engaging with mine; connecting with me; and I find myself responding with fullness of heart and gratefulness. You have seen me. Thank you.

So, may it not only be the Irish who have smiling eyes, making the world feel like a morn in spring and helping us to hear the angels sing.

As we don our masks and step out into the world, may we all have eye-smiles to match our hidden real mouth-smiles. Let us spread warmth and cheer with smiling eyes.


Further reading suggestion: Dr Seuss' lockdown advice

Dr Seuss was an ‘influencer’ way before his time. His witty and nonsensical advice, zany tongue twisters, fantastical characters, and whimsically rhythmic tales have delighted children all over the world for generations. After all, ‘from there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.’

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