Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” Mother Theresa
It’s September 1970 and I’m at an all-day rock festival. In between bands they are blasting the music of Jimi Hendrix because we’d just lost him. A few hours earlier, as I walked out the door, my dad had looked up from his paper long enough to roll his eyes. You see, I am wearing a sheet. Well, it would never function as a sheet again, as I’d cut a hole in the middle for my head, painted flowers on it and seamed the sides with safety pins. To me, it was a totally appropriate dress for a day spent in an altered state among friends. To my dad, it was another reminder of how weird his middle daughter had become.
But now, on the hard wooden bleacher in a concrete stadium, listening to the anguished strains of Hendrix’ guitar, I am lost. Even though friends are sitting nearby, everyone is a stranger. I have lost the thread of meaning. Of self. There is only emptiness within me, and emptiness around me wearing a hundred thousand faces and attire as absurd as my own. There is nothing anchoring me to any kind of benevolent normality or reality. I think I would feel sad if there were enough “me” left here to feel. And then I glance over to my right and see that about fifteen feet away, a young woman is walking up the stairs and looking right at me. And she is smiling. She looks straight into my eyes and smiles. That’s all. I’d never seen her before — and would never see her again — but in this moment she is seeing me. Her smile restores meaning to the world and, somehow, she is giving me back to myself.
It’s a warm day about 2500 years ago, and a crowd has gathered at Vulture Peak on the subcontinent of India. Many have traveled far to hear the Sage speak, and now they sit on the hard ground and wait. He stands quietly before them. The only sounds are the birds and squirrels in the treetops. At last, he holds up a single white flower. His eyes travel through the crowd until he sees one person smiling at him. The teacher smiles back. In that moment, the Buddha transmits and affirms the awakening within his student … the awakening of a wisdom beyond words.
On a very cold day in January, in Morristown, New Jersey, I rest on my side on the hospital bed and gaze at the little one who made his dramatic emergence only a few hours before. Finally, things have calmed down, everyone else is gone and we are alone. I feel a tremendous rush of gratitude and love and silently exclaim, “Oh my God! Thank you for another beautiful, perfect, amazing child!” The little one hears me and, with his eyes closed like a tiny Buddha, he smiles his first smile.
The capacity to smile is there from the day we’re born. And it never leaves us … even though we will all encounter hours or days or months when smiling seems impossible. And yet, people do smile even at the worst of times and this form of heroism is one thing I love about us. So maybe when it’s hardest to find a reason to smile, that’s the time to just do it. My father-in-law used to yell Say shit instead of Say cheese whenever he took a photo of the kids. It worked every time!
So, say whatever and smile. Because you never know how it might touch another human being. As Pema Chodron says, you could start with just turning up the corners of your mouth. And see what happens next.