Meeting the Challenge Of Being Watched

I still remember the first time I was under close ''surveillance.'' As a very small boy, I clung to my mother's hand as we made our way through a busy farmyard. Suddenly, two fully grown geese appeared from behind the barn and advanced rapidly toward us - their necks stretched straight out, their beaks wide open and hissing aggressively.

My mother didn't waver. She held her course, brandishing her unopened umbrella and exclaiming, ''Shoo! Shoo! Be off with you!''

The geese stopped in their tracks. The owner of the umbrella stalked past within a few feet of the astonished birds, the tiny tot clinging apprehensively to her free hand. For one fleeting moment I was eye to eye with those geese (they had to lower their gaze to meet mine). Then they were behind us. ''Don't look back!'' my mother said. I felt the four brown eyes riveted on us as she marched purposefully through the mud toward the gate. There was no sound of pursuit.

When we were at a ''safe'' distance, I glanced quickly over my shoulder; the big birds were moving their heads from side to side as they continued watching us. Yes, they appeared quite flabbergasted.

That was my first experience of being watched with keen attention. Yet watchful eyes are not necessarily malevolent. No reason for assuming dark intentions.

The sense of being watched must not be confused with the sense of being judged. For the most part, it is guilt that makes us vulnerable. Are we convinced of the innocence of our actions? Then we can be assured that any observer is judging without being judgmental.

There's no confusing being looked over with being watched over. Or so we might reason as we are ''shadowed.'' Of course, if our audience is hidden, we have no way of readily determining whether those ''in observer status'' continue in what they are witnessing with benign interest or remain - who knows? - perhaps flabbergasted.

Now the awareness of being closely watched, instead of posing a threat or rousing uneasiness, has been known to awaken such a sense of the bizarre in the observed one that he may decide to live up to expectations!

Like the time (a few years after the farmyard incident) that I found myself in India as a dutiful member of the Royal Air Force. I was returning to the air base at Maharajpur in the Central Provinces after a long trek into the bush. Maharajpur was then an isolated staging post for troops heading for Burma. I was one of only 100 white personnel at that staging post.

It was midafternoon and very hot. On my return journey, I had reached a hillock from which I could see the air base about a half a mile away - there just the other side of a small sugar plantation at the edge of a village. Instead of using the more circuitous route by which I had arrived, I planned to walk (as the crow flies) down through the village, through the plantation, and directly to my destination.

As Robert Burns reminds us, ''the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley.'' I can't speak for mice here, but in all other respects Burns was right enough. My descent was uneventful, and I entered the village unceremoniously. However, I had gone only a few yards when a number of women, all clothed in white saris, ran screaming into the little white adobe temple. Surprised but undaunted, I walked purposefully ahead. Several men came out of their dwellings and stood watching me without a word.

''Tig hai!'' I greeted them with the Hindu equivalent of ''Hello there!'' No response. But after I had passed I felt their eyes on me. Don't look back! I told myself.

Fifty yards and I was at the edge of the plantation. Then my lack of foresight struck home. The sugar cane was 12 to 15 feet tall. Within minutes I could be lost. Not to mention what I had heard about bamboo snakes.

Quickly I turned about to retrace my steps. Once again, the women ran into the temple with renewed cries. Now a larger gathering of men, both young and old, watched my every move. I would never know what was being thought of this uniformed airman in khaki shorts, Bombay bowler, and backpack slung over one shoulder, but I determined to walk with unhurried dignity back through the village, hoping to mask my embarrassment.

Suddenly, the whole situation hit home. Those penetrating glances, the unbroken silence, the general lack of movement, all struck me as irresistibly bizarre. I decided to add a dimension to it and switched from a saunter into a brisk military march. The atmosphere changed abruptly as tension dissolved. I thought I heard low laughter.

Actors often say what a difference a good audience makes to their performance. I'm no actor, but whenever ''under observation'' I'm conscious of being grateful for forgiving audiences.

I reached the air base that day, exhausted but safe - as much aware of being watched over as of being looked over!

Whether hidden or not, all audiences can serve to bring out the best in us.

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