The gift of a smile

My facebook status yesterday read: Francine Kelley is wondering why it is so hard for people to acknowledge each other when we walk down the street. Is it fear? Disinterest? How do we choose who we acknowledge and who we don’t? Which strangers are “okay?” Just wondering….

I used to be one of the people who walks down the street with blinders on, making sure to not catch anyone’s eye.  I grew up in Jamaica where a woman walking on the street automatically became the subject of commentary from the men along the road.  I remember living in Brooklyn in the early ‘90s and living in mortal fear of similar comments.  So I did a pretty good job of becoming ‘invisible’ by not looking anyone in the face and by developing a posture that said “leave me the heck alone.”  This stance wasn’t really to protect me from potential physical harm, but from the possibility of public humiliation.  My self esteem didn’t feel up to the challenge.

My husband often teases me that I kept that “tough” stance even after moving to this laid-back midwestern town (Chicago!).  I was actually shocked on first moving here when the bus driver smiled and said “good morning” as I got on the bus.  At first I wasn’t sure how to respond!  Nowadays I’m one of those people who smiles and says “Good morning!” to strangers walking down the street.  These strangers occasionally appear surprised (maybe they’re from Brooklyn?), others respond with varying levels of enthusiasm.  The most fascinating to me, however, are the ones who don’t look at me at all – not the ones who are oblivious (I know I’m not so impressive as to draw everyone’s attention!), but the ones who seem to be making an effort to not look, or the ones who look away after “hello.”

One comment to my Facebook status was that “being polite and friendly seems to be a thing of the past.”  The thing about politeness is that it gave us a structure for rules of engagement.  Is it that now, without that structure, we no longer have rules by which to interact – and so we don’t?  Or is it that we just don’t feel safe connecting with each other – either due to fear of physical harm or public humiliation?  Maybe it is the loss of community – the sense of strangers as “other” and therefore either dangerous or insignificant?  Maybe our cell phones & mp3 players give us a way to become even more distant and self-absorbed?  Maybe it is all these things – maybe none.

Years ago I read an email that was circulating about a boy who was about to commit suicide until a stranger helped him pick up a stack of books he had dropped.  The moral of course was that a simple act of kindness can change the trajectory of someone’s life, and even save it.  If you smile at someone walking down the street – is it possible that might be the only smile she sees that day?  If you catch the eye of someone waiting at the bus stop, what would be the harm in smiling before going back to listening to your iPod?  I realize I can’t control whether people look at me to receive my smile – a small gift of love to a stranger, an acknowledgement of our shared humanity.  But if I pass someone who can’t or won’t look at me, for whatever reason, I can still send a smile from my heart by wishing for them:  “May you have joy, peace and happiness, today and always.” And since we are not separate, this smile blesses me with love, as it blesses them.

So, I’m curious – do you smile a strangers or allow yourself to be smiled at?  Why?  If not, why not?  What would happen if we all started offering the gift of a smile to strangers (and therefore to ourselves)?


2 thoughts on “The gift of a smile”

  1. Hi Francine, good to see you posting again. I smile at strangers all the time, but I'm not an idiot. It's fine to do so in our leafy little suburban neighbourhood of London, perhaps less so in Brixton. There's always the chance that a differently-wired person will take the smile to be a secret signal from their muse on planet Tharg, or whatever, and get all weird/creepy/stalky on your ass. Thankfully, the chance of that is small, and as with all apparent happenings, it might not be something "bad", just challenging. As it happens, when I catch people's eyes and smile, the reactions are varied and beautiful; tentative, or immediately reciprocal, or slightly stunned, or my favourite, a bit unbelieving, willing to return the smile but needing more than the fleeting moment to do so. They pass with a small confused look, and I feel sure they are then determined to respond better next time.

    I had a small and beautiful moment on a Tube station once…I was running to get the train or else be late for work, and I really smashed into this guy's shoulder. Well, I was very sorry, but I wasn't about to miss the train either. We clutched each other's arms as I continued to make progress toward the train, and clasped fingers briefly and warmly as I continued to run and made it to the train before the doors closed. Everything was communicated in the clutching and clasping, that I was very sorry to have collided with him, and that he understood, please go get your train, I forgive the colliding. It's not just that there are a few nice people out there. It's that every (apparent) interaction we have with "others" is an interaction with ourselves, a mirror, a seamless flow…whether it feels like it or not.

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