A few weeks ago my family was walking down the street in Sidney by the Sea on our way to brunch. It had been a stressful week of constant cleaning and prepping our house for a parade of real estate agents. Alas, the for sale sign was still on our lawn, along with a zillion other for sale signs now popping up like dandelions everywhere in the city. We were exhausted.
As we passed the corner with the bank on it, I glanced at a street musician playing guitar rather poorly. “Smile,” he said. “Life’s not that bad.”
I paused ever so slightly.
I didn’t smile.
“How does he know what our life is like?” I whispered to my husband. “What if we were coming back from a funeral or had just lost a job? What if we COULDN’T smile because of some physical defect? What if we just didn’t want to…what if….”
My husband looked at me patiently, recognizing this for the Seinfeld moment it was. My inner Elaine was emerging.
It came down to this: the guitar player’s delivery of “Just smile” wasn’t a request, or an attempt to cheer me — it was more like a demand, an invasion.
Just smile. The word “just” implies it is simple to smile at will, as in Nike’s slogan, “Just do it”. What I think Nike really means is “Just do it ALREADY. Everyone else is just doing it. Why the heck aren’t you? What’s WRONG with you that you can’t just do it?”
I smile a lot. I really do. And I have lots of things to smile about. I also laugh a lot. But in repose my face has a natural melancholy to it even when I’m not sad.
And sometimes I look grumpy when I’m not, possibly because I’m nearsighted so I squint a lot because I lose my glasses a lot.
So I’m not anti-smiling. I know smiling helps your immune system, it can lower blood pressure, it releases natural endorphins and serotonin, it makes you seem more successful and likable.
Some studies suggest that just the act of smiling actually makes you feel happier. After all, isn’t that what Nat King Cole wanted everyone to do when he sang, “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile/If you just smile.”
But there’s something wrong in that lyric. Some of the saddest people I’ve known were ones who smiled a lot. They put on a brave face. They kept up appearances. They ended up depressed or ill. And they only recovered — if they recovered at all — when they began to get real, to excavate beneath the smile, and the substratum of sorrow to find and begin to nurture an authentic joy.
It’s downright disconcerting to talk to someone who is always smiling? Always chipper. Always let’s-get-happy! I figure they’ve either discovered the secret to life or they’re hiding something. That constant smile is like spraying Febreze to cover an odour. The odour doesn’t go away. It just lurks beneath the scent of “fresh linen.”
Children, I think, can tell the difference between a real smile and a forced one. The forced smile scares them. It’s why so many kids are ‘weirded out’ by clowns with grins painted on. It’s why The Joker in Batman is so scary. The smile wasn’t real.
“Some people wear their smile like a disguise,” said singer Ani Difranco. “Those people who smile a lot, watch their eyes. I know ’cause I’m like that a lot. You think everything’s ok, and it is . . . ’till it’s not.”
“Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening,” said Greta Garbo, who wasn’t known for her smiles.
And then, of course, there’s the wisdom of George Carlin. “If a man smiles all the time,” said Carlin, “he’s probably selling something that doesn’t work.”
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t smile if you feel like smiling. No one wants to be around someone who constantly wears a hangdog expression. A real smile, one that comes from the heart, is a gift. It can’t be bought, begged or demanded from someone.
I guess what I’m talking about is the freedom to be authentic, to walk down the street lost in your thoughts without some joker saying, “Smile. Life’s not that bad.”
Better that he had simply given me a smile. It would have changed everything.
“Smile” alan cleaver 2000 @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“080409 Smile Crossing” Dan 4th @ Flickr. com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Smile ” Derek Purdy @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.