You know that feeling when someone you don’t know is staring at you? And then you catch them doing it?
At best it can make you feel self conscious. At worst it can hack you off.
So described the father of three boys to me last summer, as he watched his kids splash in the waves of Miramar Beach.
It was an acquaintanceship by vacation, when after three mornings of your beach chairs and umbrellas being set up beside each other, you finally say hello.
After the usual opening questions about where we were all from and our children’s respective ages, he turned to my husband and me and stated matter-of-factly “All three of mine are autistic.”
I wasn’t entirely sure if he’d said it preemptively or out of parental protectiveness, but I knew I sensed no pity.
He’d opened the door, so we asked the questions. What was their daily life like? Did they have a strong support system at home?
Among his many candid remarks, he described in detail an evening when they’d taken the boys to dinner at a nicer than usual restaurant. The father already feared their table had become a spectacle when he felt the stare of a couple dining nearby.
He told us how badly it had gotten to him, how he feared this man’s judgment over his family when despite outward appearances, he was doing the best he could. It had almost prompted him to rise from his table and confront the husband right then, but for a little nudge holding him back.
Before he could change his mind again, the server stopped by to tell them the couple had paid their tab.
“There I was, mad as hell and thinking this guy was judging me,” he said, shaking his head. “And he just wanted to show my family a little kindness.”
I’ve felt a version of the same when out with my own family. It’s unnerving to feel the stare of other patrons boring down on our table. But when the looks that I’m sure are judgmental ones turn out to be people stopping by to tell us how polite and well behaved our children are (um, what?), I feel myself relax.
Maybe their voices are a bit louder than I think they should be, or their manners aren’t yet up to the high standards their dad and I have set for them. But these unexpected social affirmations have become the best kind of surprise.
We’re all curious people. When something catches our eye, try as we might not to stare, we know we’re gonna.
So when you do, follow through.
It needn’t be a gesture as grand as picking up the bill for a party of five. But it costs nothing to observe something that is truthful and sincere (since we’re already staring, right?), and then muster up enough social grace to say it.
Give it a go. You just might surprise yourself.