When our family first moved overseas, I had a pretty definite “battle plan” for adapting to daily life in another culture. It involved keeping my head down, blending in, being a watcher, flying under the radar, letting the Russian people yell at me if they wanted to (they did)—pretty much anything to avoid lengthy scrutiny or confrontation. In short, my battle plan was NOT to battle. There were occasions, however, when I was less reticent, especially if I felt there was a threat, even a small one, to me or my children.
One afternoon I was coming out of a shop with our two daughters in tow, stuffing change into my wallet while juggling two heavy bags of groceries. In no time, a swarm of gypsy children surrounded us, waving hands in my face and clamoring for money. I berated myself for letting my guard down. Groups of gypsies were common in the summertime in Moscow. Flashing money around in plain sight, as I was doing in my carelessness, was an open invitation to be mobbed.
I paused a moment, considering my options and concerned for my daughters. The goal of the gypsy children was to have the cash they could plainly see, but common wisdom said that it was best not to do anything that would make them bolder in their begging. I surely did not want them following me! The bottom line for me was simply to get out of the middle of this group as quickly as possible.
One girl, taller than the others, had positioned herself next to my left hand, which still held my open wallet. In the midst of the clamor, she suddenly grabbed my arm, and just like that my battle plan of reticence went out the window. Jerking my arm up and away, I turned on her, looked her in the eye and gave her the full blast of what my husband refers to as the Death Look. Her big eyes opened wide in fear. She ducked as if avoiding a blow, and she and her friends scattered, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared.
This is a story I have told often because it was a time—perhaps the only time—when the Death Look produced a good result. My husband, who became familiar with the Death Look in the early years of our marriage, had identified it quickly and studiously avoided it. While it seemed to give me immediate control of an argument or disagreement, it really only created an environment of anger, distrust, antagonism—not exactly things you want in a marriage. We fortunately moved on to healthier ways of communicating as the years passed. But in the midst of a group of gypsy children who wanted my money, the Death Look shifted control from them to me and served me well.
Some years later, I am sad to say that the Death Look resurfaced as a way to control the behavior of our oldest daughter. When she was 10 or 11 years old, I developed the habit of fixing her with the Death Look when we were in the company of others and I wanted to avoid an open argument but still let her know she was not behaving as I wished. I don’t know if she remembers this, but I do because I was pretty smug about my ability to control her with a single look. I began nailing her with the Look at home, as well. The fact that she came to avoid my eyes altogether should have been a clue as to its real effect, but for a while I enjoyed the power I wielded.
Then came the day when I picked up a tattered little paperback in a pile of used parenting books at our school rummage sale. As I began to thumb through it, a heading to this effect caught my eye: “When she looks in your eyes, does she see love?” My gosh, how my heart suddenly hurt as I faced the truth. I could hardly bear to think what my daughter saw in my eyes when I fixed her with the Death Look. Why was I so intent on showing displeasure to one whom I loved so deeply? The book further explained that a loving look is especially crucial when our girls are 10 or 11, and when our boys are four or five. Our son was five at the time, and and our second daughter was fast approaching the crucial pre-teen years. How often had I used the Death Look on ALL of them?
Shortly after this, my daughter and I were in the kitchen together cleaning up after dinner. Whether she dropped or spilled something I don’t recall, but she stole a furtive glance in my direction. I knew the look that she was expecting, and I knew exactly what I wanted her to see. I locked my eyes on hers with all the love I felt for her, and I smiled. She stared at me with a look of shock, followed quickly by relief. To this day my eyes fill with tears as I recall that moment. She glanced down for a minute, then back at me. Like a time-lapse video of a seedling unbending and reaching upward, she stood a little straighter, looked up into my eyes in wonder, and returned my smile fully and openly.
I am a sinner, and I have no doubt that the Death Look surfaced again in the years since that time, but if ever there was affirmation of a simple but powerful bit of parenting wisdom—one I deem worthy to pass along to my own children and anyone who is a parent—that was it for me. When they look in your eyes, do they see love? It’s hard to describe the thrill I got for a while, just seeing my kids’ reaction to a simple loving look. I think we like to believe our kids know that we love them, but in times of bad behavior and disobedience, it’s tempting to trust a look of disapproval and disappointment that most kids wish to avoid. We forget that a Death Look is a pretty big barrier for any message of love to pass through.
Do they see love? As a new mother, I read an article that urged parents to consider carefully what we want our children to think about every day as we choose the things to hang on their walls. When I saw a picture of Jesus looking deeply into the eyes of a little child (half price!) in a Christian bookstore, I suddenly knew what I wanted our kids to see and think about every day. The child laughing up into Jesus’ eyes could have been either of my own, surrounded by friends or siblings. Jesus was in their midst, and his eyes were filled with love. This picture has traveled around the world with us—during times when my own look was less than loving, or I needed to see that look myself, I have been grateful that we all have had this reminder of Jesus’ look of love.
You may know this picture, titled “Jesus and the Children,” by Frances Hook (1962). It was popular when I was a child in the mid-60’s. In recent times, and having lived in other cultures, I’ve been all too aware that the children in the picture are light-skinned, with light brown hair and round eyes. I think it would be marvelous to be able to reproduce this scene for children of all colors and types of skin, hair, and eyes, so any child could have a version in which Jesus is gazing into the face of a child who could be them. Because this is something children should know—that the look they receive from Jesus is not a Death Look, but the look of absolute and unwavering love, meant specifically for their eyes to see.
The fact is, God has every reason to give us the Death Look. Our easy and self-centered neglect of him—to the point of denial—and our desire to control things with our own “rules,” and in our own way, puts us in a place where he has every reason to look on us with anger, disappointment, displeasure. But Jesus’ Death Look for us is limited to the one that came after he uttered the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” and died in our place to bear our sin of defying and neglecting his love-based will. Jesus’ Look is one of love—love that gives Life, as he plainly told his disciples in the Good Shepherd passage of John 10:10: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”
My husband says that he is now amused by the Death Look, and to be honest I have a difficult time producing it in his presence. But I AM one of those people who has a “naturally sober” expression. It is often perceived as disapproving and, really, I can more easily put people off with a look than put them at ease. This is something I think about. In an age when eye contact seems to be reserved for screens and looks of approval seem to be reserved for those who have somehow earned it, I wonder what my eyes say to people. Whether they are my loved ones or simply ones to whom I can show love (even a gypsy girl wanting my money)–do people in my life see yet another frowning, disapproving face when they see me? Or, instead, do my eyes reflect the self-sacrificing love that I see in the eyes of Jesus?
A couple of months ago, via Facetime, our daughter Louisa showed us Katrina playing with her baby boy during a weekend while Louisa was visiting. At one point, Katrina turned her wiggly son toward her and leaned forward until their foreheads touched, her eyes locked on his. Forward and back she went a few times, eyes fixed on him, as he stared at her, mesmerized. I was mesmerized, myself, as I watched my daughter as a first-time parent, her eyes filled with this amazing love.
I hope and pray that my children will not be tempted to trust the false power of the Death Look in their relationships—in their marriages, with colleagues, in their friendships, but especially as they meet the challenges of parenting their own children. I pray they will trust and reflect the look of amazing love they receive from Jesus, just as I pray that my own eyes will more consistently be reflective of the love I receive from my Savior, love that saves me from death—and from resorting to the Death Look.