When I was 13, it felt like I didn’t have much to smile about. Mostly, that was because my remaining friends were motorbiking to adulthood while my own feet were rooted in yesterday. But even when a joke, a kindness or a cheery surprise sparked happiness, my smile resided mostly in my eyes. To smile — cheeks vaulting skyward, breath released in a puff through parted lips — would have meant exposing my teeth. Exposing my braces.
Although my ears were recently pierced, my teeth were the most highly ornamented part of me: more silver bands and wires than a jewelry store. And I hated it. When I felt self-conscious, which was basically whenever I left the house, I kept my smile under a rock.
Actually, that is not completely true: at least a few unchecked smiles earned me the nickname “Gary Glitter,” after a 1970s glam rock singer. I hated that too.
We know the biochemical causes and impacts of anxiety and depression, along with the legacies of trauma or sorrow. I had none of these. Yet in my memory of myself back then, excavating a smile buried deeper than dinosaur bones was simply too hard.
I know I’m exaggerating these memories. I’m sure my family and my classmates would swear I smiled. In that case, where did those smiles come from?
I now understand the neurobiology of smiling, how the muscle movement instantly releases dopamine and serotonin. So maybe my smile back then was a reflex too fast for me to control. Maybe my brain — marinating in adolescent moroseness — was simply demanding an occasional burst of happy-making or stress-releasing hormones. Or maybe — and I wonder this on behalf of all of us — whether maybe we smile now and then because we are actually fashioned for joy.
I think of people I know with deep anxiety or depression; I’ve seen them beam a quick smile over a witty music lyric, a well-crafted film angle or a board game surprise. I’ve seen people brought low by unfathomable sorrow smile while helping another person, nurturing a friendship or gazing at some gift of nature. I’ve seen people crushed by trauma who smile when trying to cheer me up.
And then there are people I know nothing about, who return my smile as we pass on the street (six feet apart), or who brighten when they encounter a dog or a baby or a very specific type of car.
As an adult, I have acquired wisdom, confidence and lovely straight teeth. I have been lucky. I have reasons to smile, and I do. Smiling makes me feel good: first, that shot of dopamine, then the sunshine radiating from another’s smiling response, and finally my awareness of the tiny fiber of connection and goodness we’ve just launched together into the universe.
A neighbor has posted a small erasable sign at the top of their driveway. Each day it offers a small message calculated to prompt a smile or a bit of connection. Whether the sign offers a chicken and egg joke, a gag from Calvin and Hobbes or a droll line from Jane Austen, I see walkers routinely glance at the sign as they make their way.
The walkers could ignore these little offerings, but they choose not to. They choose curiosity and the possibility of humor or even delight. I think they also choose connecting with a mysterious and whimsical heart.
I imagine my neighbors — whom I don’t know — launching this bit of joy into an ecosystem that throbs with fear and anger and sadness but that longs for just the opposite. And I wonder whether my neighbors smile when they think of the smiles they’ve engendered.
I hope so. Perhaps there’s a 13-year old girl out there — her head bowed exactly low enough to see the sign — who will smile today without anyone knowing. And maybe, animated by the morsel of delight she just absorbed, the girl will surprise the next person she meets (and herself) with a tiny smile.
p.s. Readers, as your reward for reading to the end, here are two of the signs I remember: “Yesterday I ordered a chicken from Amazon. And then I ordered an egg…. You tell me.” Also, “Hobbes to Calvin: ‘I think most hiccup cures were really invented for the amusement of the patient’s friends.’”
I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community site. Follow this link to see other short essays about “Smile.”
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