About smiling


During the 1990s, my friend Marie was the director of a shelter for homeless women and children sponsored by a small Christian denomination.
I visited her once at the shelter and I could see that she gave her whole heart to her work. She smiled at residents as they went out and came home. She smiled at them consulting with them about their plans. She smiled at strangers in need or at kids walking down the street. Her smile revealed her deep awareness of the vulnerability of another person. Her smile was completely reassuring and affirming, full of compassion and devoid of pity.
I had already seen this quality of hers when we were not even 20 years old and I went with her to visit the children who spent weeks alone in the ward at the hospital where she worked. She smiled with such unselfish kindness it seemed to me. She took seriously the isolation of these children with inconclusive diagnoses, and she knew how those scared, lonely children would feel when someone smiled at them. It was one of the gifts she gave them.
In Marie’s office at the shelter, she handed me the heart-shaped pin given to supporters. “You should wear this,” she smiled. It said, “A loving heart sees the need.” That’s when it registered with me that Marie smiled a lot. I suddenly understood Thich Nhat Hanh’s statement: “Sometimes, your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
I knew Marie had many reasons not to be filled with joy, from an abusive childhood to a disastrous marriage to chronic health conditions, but she nevertheless embodied joy and generated happiness for herself and for others in her sphere, smiling.
On a bright, windless afternoon in March of 2008, I walked to a coffee shop in Minneapolis to meet my friend Mary. It was a day when smiles came out of me naturally. I don’t know if I was smiling because I felt full of joy or felt joyful because I was smiling, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests.
I passed a scruffy, shabby, bulky young man who looked like he wasn’t doing very well. I smiled and said, “Good afternoon,” an old-fashioned greeting that lets people know you may be from another country or another generation. It makes you more dignified. The young man grunted a faint but friendly reply, as though confirming my sense that things were not going well for him.
I passed a young mother pushing her baby in a stroller. I admired the baby, smiled and said, “Good afternoon.” Endearing pride shone from her face and she smiled back effusively, glad for the human contact, it seemed. (I remembered my own days at home with my baby daughter.)
I passed a young boy of maybe 8 or 10 sitting on the steps in front of his house. He was swinging a switch from his willow tree back and forth in a lazy arc. I smiled and said, “Good afternoon,” and he answered with a full-throated, drawn out “Haieee …..” His smile said, “Look at me. I’m alive. Ain’t it great?”
Fear of smiling often overcomes me and I lower my eyes to avoid human contact. Sometimes I feel like if I smile at people, they will think I’m weak. Or I doubt my smile will be returned and I don’t want to take that chance.
When my children were growing up, I realized I rarely smiled. I realized that my mother had rarely smiled at home either. When I became aware of that fact I was stunned. It was something I wanted to change. It seemed imperative to change that. Once, in an experiential workshop in a prison, in a small group exercise, I said, in response to one of the exercises, that I wanted to smile at my children more often. I wanted to become a smiling mother. The inmates in my group were strangely affected by the sadness of an unsmiling mother and they strongly encouraged me. They were shocked at the idea of an unsmiling mother. I still smile when I think of their encouragement.
In the fall of 2007, my friend Barbara in Spain practically forced me (she begged me many times and arranged to pay some of my expenses) to come to New York City for a weekend Hindu healing workshop led by Dr. S. Mohanambal, Barbara’s physician, who practices both Western and Ayurvedic medicine. The workshop was sponsored by the One Spirit seminary (a theological seminary that studies all religions—dear to my heart) on 38th Street in Manhattan. The coordinator from the seminary told me I had a beautiful smile when I met her. I didn’t take the compliment as manipulative flattery; therefore, I was able to receive it. This woman affirmed my smile as a source of power, not an obsequiousness, or vulnerability.
Then I started thinking of my smile as a gift I could give, one that people would like to receive. It helped me continue smiling at my family.
And it helped me later that year when I went to Kansas to visit my mother, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She was comfortable but lonely in the care home where she sat all day long doing nothing. She couldn’t communicate with words any more. If you asked her a question and she heard the intonation, the end of the sentence rising as questions do, you could feel the little ping of dread that went to her heart because she knew she wouldn’t be able to answer. She would try to talk, but it was hard. Once in a while everything came together. But usually nobody had the time to wait around for that to happen.
On the first day I smiled all the time and hugged her and held her hands. I tried to talk with her but felt cruel every time. So, I kept smiling. I thought it was probably the best thing I could give her. Maybe I was passing along some healing from the Hindu healing seminar.
When I was leaving, my mother stated, “You’re doing really well, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question. It made her very happy, I could tell, to think that I was doing very well. I know, as a mother, that for mothers (whether or not they can talk, no matter how lonely they may be, whether or not they remember anything), the most important thing is the well-being of their children.
Considering that I’ve had to learn to smile, I always have to smile to myself when I see someone just smiling for no reason, not at anyone, just smiling away, maybe from natural happiness.
When I went to visit Marie at the shelter, we went out to eat one afternoon and a young server, about 15 or 16 years old, smiled the whole time she refilled our water glasses (maybe she was stoned and enjoying every minute of it). I used to have a young piano student who always smiled broadly as he played. It’s amazing how much joy a smile can generate.
Thich Nhat Hanh also said, “Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.” Of course, now, with COVID masks, people can’t always tell when you smile—although the crinkling eyes are a good clue.
Whenever I can safely remove my mask, I try to take the opportunity to spread some smiles, some human-to-human affirmation, so we can confront the great challenges ahead at this time—our dying planet, our pandemic, our racism.

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