Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I followed through on some of the impulses that flit through my mind. For instance, on the way home from the vet this morning (on foot; the vet’s office is just up the block), I thought strongly about sitting down on the sidewalk and crying. Would anyone have noticed? I did pass the mail carrier on the way. Surely he would have looked askance at me. Then again, I’ve walked home from the vet in tears before, and no one gave me a second look. And I don’t exactly live in a remote enclave — along with the vet’s office, the street holds a police station, fire station, Girl Scout headquarters (great for receiving one’s cookies before everyone else does), two dentists’ offices, a park and a bus stop. There are people about, believe me. But here’s the rub: Each one of us is so attuned to our own self-doubts, miseries, anxieties and pleasures that we often have no space in our vision or hearts for anyone else’s.
Maybe that’s a good thing. It’s hard enough to navigate one’s own life without taking on the baggage of others. Our own suitcases are plenty heavy, thank you. I, for instance, did not ask the mail carrier how his day was going. Maybe he was up all night with a sick baby. Maybe his mother is in the hospital. How would I know? I was stuck in my own woes. But we did exchange a smile, at least. And here’s the thing — I meant it. I like people generally, and hope our mailman has a nice day. And he, at least in that moment, felt the same way about me.
Maybe if I turned my vision outward more often, I would find that most of us are struggling with one thing or another, but are willing to reach out with positivity anyway. We are never as alone as we think we are. God made us responsive to one another from the get-go: Babies seek out human faces, quickly learning to smile so as to elicit a response should hunger, thirst or other need occur. It is instinctive behavior. Perhaps we are all just infants, whatever our age, looking for someone to respond to our smile, just in case we should ever need them down the line. Perhaps that’s what a smile is — a social cue passed from one to another to admit both our own inherent weakness and transmit the possibility of solidarity. I need you, and you need me. We agree, yes?
I won’t tell you to smile (though your heart is aching), or to let a smile be your umbrella: No one likes being told to feel something he or she does not feel. But know this — a smile is a gift, and you never know how much it might mean to someone else until you give it. In the uptick of facial muscles lies the hand of God. Pass it on.