Speaking Your First First Language

I had the distinct privilege of delivering the commencement address for the two graduate programs that live at The Family Institute at Northwestern University— my home away from home for almost twenty years. In my remarks, I explored the importance of eye contact and touch in this warp speed digital age. Smart phones impact our relationships, and while technology can bring people together, it can also keep people at a distance. See what you think:


With the advent of the iPhone, we tend to spend more time looking at our screens and less time looking at each other. When we are texting, we are communicating with each other. We may even use a well-placed emoji to convey the feeling we are having about the other. (Side note: a young woman I have been seeing in therapy for years, recently expressed to me her frustration about this new guy she’s into by saying, “it took him like three months to send me the kissy face emoji. Three months!”). But no emoji can ever do for our relationships what our actual 3D, real time, here and now faces can do for our relationships. Research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology confirms what we all know, deeply in our bones, deeply in our DNA—eye gaze between people is vital. The eyes are truly the windows to the soul. Gaze loops us into each other’s experiences. It is central from our first days here when we gaze at our caregivers, right up until our last breaths. Eye gaze quite literally changes our physiology.

And it seems to me that on a day as extraordinary as this one, words may fail to capture this. So, I wonder, what might happen if, for today, we each take the risk to “speak” to each other in our collective, universal, mother tongue… Our very first first language. The language of eye contact. The language of touch. The language that with our handy, nifty iPhones may be turning somewhat rusty.

So that when, for example, father approaches daughter at the end of the ceremony, and he feels unsure how to use words to convey the complexity of the experience he is having, because the experience he is having puts him in deep contact with the very essence of life itself. And whatever words he chooses may highlight for him all of the words he’s not choosing. And his emotions may overpower him. And he may fight the feelings. Or he may lose the ability to continue to try to explain what he’s feeling as he bears witness to daughter stepping boldly into her next chapter. So what if, for today, he lets himself off the hook, accepting that words will very likely fail, and what if, for today, he falls back on his first language. What if he just simply holds his daughter’s gaze, and holds his daughter’s hands, and lets his face and his hands convey, across the synapse, all of what he is feeling, trusting that his daughter, as she rocks her cap and gown, will gaze back at him, and she will know exactly what he’s “saying.”


When you are with the ones you love, I invite you to kick it old school– keep your phone in your pocket and remember your mammalian roots. Eyes. Hands. Gaze. Touch.

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