“At the age of 50, every man gets the face he deserves.”
– George Orwell
When I was 18, I realized I had the ability to read faces.
In college, for fun during parties, my dorm-mates would bring me photos of their friends and family back home, and I would tell them about their loved ones without knowing anything besides what was in the picture. I found I could read personality traits like intellectuality, sensitivity, intensity, openness, sometimes hobbies, and more. As long as the person wasn’t wearing glasses, I suspect so I could see clearly into their eyes.
I don’t know how I did this. I just “knew”, like an intuition or feeling. I wasn’t right all the time, but I was right often enough.
I don’t think this is all that extraordinary of a skill, in fact. Maybe you can do it, too. The profession of acting is based on the idea that the shape of a person’s face and body intuitively communicates his or her character.
For example, our male heroes (at least in the West) have square jaws, broad shoulders and foreheads, and high cheekbones. These features communicate steadfastness, nobility, perspective, and reliability.
Our villains tend to have narrower eyes, and somewhat larger skulls, and often smaller bodies – not to mention British accents! – contrasting our Western heroes’ warm, powerful physicality with cold, rational intellect.
Of course there are also infinite variations on these basic themes, and those that creatively defy them, as well.
In women, our warm, loving mothers have rounder faces.
Our seductresses and heroines, more “triangular” faces. Though some of this distinction is also due to the way that the shape of women’s faces develop over time.
A look at child actor Haley Joel Osment’s distinctive face tells you everything you need to know about the qualities he’s meant to embody: the big, blue eyes and forehead, contrasted with his small mouth communicate a mind that perceives and feels much, but says little.
Unsurprisingly, those are the characters he played.
Again, these physical archetypes in TV, film, and theater resonate with each of us on an intuitive level. But for whatever reasons – most likely related to childhood bullying and my survival needs to quickly distinguish friend from foe – I developed a heightened sensitivity to my inner impressions of everyday faces. So now I pick out the subtler qualities in the complicated faces shaped by the complicated forces of daily life.
As you might imagine, it was a journey trying to get comfortable with this. It’s one thing to do it on-demand at parties, using photos of friends and loved ones. It’s another thing to feel this sense develop on its own to such a degree that I was seeing internal qualities in people I interacted with all the time. Friend or stranger, it didn’t matter. Witnessing people’s sadness, strengths, griefs, wounds, beliefs, and more, virtually all the time, started to feel like a profound invasion of people’s privacy.
These thoughts didn’t, and don’t, come from conscious calculation. The messages are communicated from inside, seemingly of their own volition. And like my synesthesia that transforms sounds into psychedelic sights in my mind’s-eye (another post for another time), I can’t turn it off.
Over time, I compensated with three thoughts:
1) “Don’t believe everything you think.” – Ultimately, unless someone tells me, there’s no way I can know for sure about his or her inner experience. It’s a felt sense-perception. So I’ve had to fight my mind to remain open to the full experience of the individual, and not be looking for verification of my ideas.
This has been a blessing because it’s forced me to be attentive to all my interactions with people to a degree that I don’t think I otherwise might have been. It’s like getting a look at what might just be my biases and prejudices, and saying, “No. Pay attention to this person now, in the moment. Be mindful. Let them unfold to you, and perhaps be surprised.” This instinct turns out to be right pleasingly often.
2) “Never Take Advantage.” – This is tied closely to the first. My heart is repulsed by the idea of taking what I am “shown” (to the degree that word applies) and using it to my advantage, whether to manipulate for personal gain, strategize, or calculate.
As with any good moral decision, there are good practical reasons for this, as well. On one hand, assuming I am correct in my perceptions, to take advantage would make me something I don’t want to be: a bad person, serving myself at the expense of others. That is simply not who I am, nor is it who I have ever been. On the other hand, if I act and I am wrong in my perceptions, then I have fallen into a trap that could be quite difficult to escape from. So taking advantage proves to be a lose-lose situation.
Though I am aware that not everyone would see it that way, I am happy that I do.
3) “Compassion.” – In the moment, if I simply cannot shake a feeling or intuition, my reaction has grown into one of compassion.
As a simple example, drug and alcohol addiction, especially for those in recovery, is particularly visible to me on people’s faces. I see it in the shape of the eye sockets, the brow in profile, and the jaw. It’s as if the entire structure of the face is trying to hold itself together after a great shattering. Often I can “see” the deeper emotional pains that the substances are meant to treat, as well.
The effect is like witnessing two equal-but-opposing forces battling it out in the person’s bone structure. In one direction, the pain pushes towards disintegration and disunity. In other direction, personal discipline and desire pulls towards integration and harmony, however tenuous. This same dynamic is quite common in many of the faces I see.
And rather than judge, I love. I honor the journey of the individual, even as it breaks my heart to know.
These three above thoughts and the mental discipline needed to sustain them led to me developing, at some point in my 20’s, an ability for which I am grateful: the ability to see the best in people.
As Diego, the brilliant shaman at Sacred Valley Tribe in Pisac, Peru, said during my ayahuasca ceremony at his temple, “Who we are is everything that’s left once we strip away everything that is false.” On many days, many faces seem to me like unfinished marble statues, the true form emerging through what is extraneous.
I see nobility fighting through pain, courage blossoming through fear, strength growing through agony, openness emerging through dogma – and all this miraculous individuation occurring in the slow, natural processes of growth and evolution. They are truly beautiful, those moments when I witness the work of art a person is, carved by forces as epic and eternal as those that shape a mountain peak.
This is true for those who choose to see themselves that way, and those who don’t, as well.
If you are reading this, this is probably how I see you, too.
By now you might be wondering, “What does this have to do with your face, Will? That is the title of this post, after all.”
The #1 subject of this high-powered perception, the most available victim, the least able to fight back, the only person for whom I unapologetically broke those three rules above and in whom I consistently made no effort to see the best, was always the same person.
For years, I tried not to allow people to take pictures of me. To this day, I still have a setting that requires me to approve all tags of photos on Facebook, so I’m not caught unaware of my image escaping into the digital wild.
This was only in part because of my weight, which was a battle I fought for a long time and finally won with the help of this company that I strongly recommend for everyone who has struggled with either weight loss, or getting in shape: www.PrecisionNutrition.com.
If you don’t mind me getting raw for a moment, yes I hated looking at my chins. Yes I hated seeing how I actually appeared, despite my different inner body-sense. Yes, at my heaviest, I hated looking like “The Guy Who Ate Will” as I often joked.
But that was not the worst of it, because this is not a post about weight, though someday I may write that post.
The worst was that in looking at MY OWN image, I could see everything I sought to avoid knowing about myself, written on my face. I could see every bit of my sadness, all my shame, my grief, my insecurity, wounds, struggles, failures… my entire dark side laid out before me, bare, in the most casual photo from a club or party.
How could I hide from that? I already knew the truth of how I was feeling day-to-day. Only I denied it. With every ounce of my being I pushed it away, hid it from myself.
Until, of course, someone snapped a photo with an increasingly-ubiquitous smartphone, or if I walked past a mirror or window unprepared.
Then all these struggles would come rushing into my consciousness again with force. The extra weight on my body simply became an undeniable physical expression of the sad, dense energy I was carrying emotionally. Baggage, you might say.
Though I carried this energy on my body, to me the situation found its most tragic expression on my face. No matter how big the hoodies and jeans I wore, I couldn’t escape what I saw through the window of my visage, nor hide it either. My drooping eye-sockets, increasingly-round head, puffy cheeks, mottled skin, and always-on-the-verge-of-watery eyes spoke to me of a human being simply bursting with grief and pain. I was a river dammed.
Maybe no one else around me saw it, but I did. I couldn’t not.
Rather than not believing what I thought, I knew it was all true. Even if not all of it was.
Rather than being nurturing to myself, I let the pain lead me to behaviors I knew weren’t good for me, but I did them anyway.
And heartbreakingly, rather than showing myself compassion, many times the best I could muster for myself was disappointment and bitter cruelty.
It hurts to say these things, as it hurts to remember some and realize others. But it is the truth.
That is why this picture means the world to me.
I took it in Pisac, Peru, in June, at a restaurant in the main plaza. I was sitting next to a beloved friend not in the frame, and other dear friends, as well.
To you, this is probably a photo of your friend, Will.
To me, this photo is a trophy. This photo is VICTORY.
And so is this one, taken in Medellín.
I cannot offer you words that adequately communicate what it took to look out to the world through this face, when I have had others.
I cannot retrace for you the steps I took through the my darkest inner places, searching for the wounds that called to me.
I cannot point you towards the body of water comprised of every tear I cried reliving the grief I feared to feel, really feel, once and for all.
I cannot describe for you my visions, shamanic waking dreams that illuminated to me hidden dimensions of my life and others’, which defied words but demanded to be spoken nonetheless.
I cannot explain the strength and will it took to stand before my metaphorical inner “electric fence” and grab hold with both hands until I had exhausted its charge, over and over again, so I could rip down, section by section, the defenses I had built around my heart.
And I cannot name for you every ally – brother or sister, human and spirit – who was my strength when I had none, my encouragement when I wanted to quit, who offered me a map when I was lost or wisdom when I was a fool, and who served as my cheerleaders on the field of Me vs. Everything That Is False.
No, I cannot show you that process. I can only show you the result that is visible in the expression of the life I am currently living, and in the expression on the face of the man living it.
This expression. This happiness. This balance. This radiance. This confidence. This joy. This presence. This open-eyed clarity. This beauty.
This smile. My smile.
Look again. This was worth fighting for.
And so was this.
OK and since I did mention weight loss, also this:
Yes these are bits in files. But they mirror to me a new experience of being, different than I’ve had before.
I would never trade the files for the feeling, because the trophy is not the victory. But I get to keep both.
And I need both. Because while the trophy is not the victory, it is still a symbol; a symbol of the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on, the hardest thing I’ve ever worked for, and, if actions be louder than words, a man I have clearly demonstrated that I love very much:
Through that monumental effort, characterized by generosity, requiring the best of me – head, heart, hands, and spirit – I have earned and continue to earn something precious.
Something I get to keep, and share. Something that, while looking, shows me what I need to see. Something that has changed my life, and that of others’ too. Something that will grow with me as I grow into it, hopefully forever.
Something I no longer hide from.
Something I no longer need to.
The face that I deserve.
Apologies to those who received in email an earlier, unfinished version of this post.
Cover photo by Claudia.