how a smile changed the world
To claim that one smile can change the world is a pretty sanguine statement. I mean, really? One smile? The whole world? For as small as social media has made it seem, geographically the world is still a pretty large place. So the thought of one single smile changing all 196.9 million square miles of our planet seems like a bit of a stretch.
But what if it that idea isn’t crazy? What if one smile really can change the world? Before you roll your eyes and write me off as an unrealistic optimist, let me explain why I've suddenly been reevaluating the legitimacy of that idea.
It all started last Friday:
I was having a pretty bad day, and I was extremely grumpy. I was annoyed, frustrated, sleep deprived, a little hungry, a lot emotionally drained, and my bad mood was written all over my face. I was in the car driving, completely tuned out from the world. I wasn’t even singing along to the radio, which for me is my biggest tell that something is wrong. I always sing in the car. Always. But not that day. That day I was pissed and it showed.
I pulled into Wawa to get a few things for a long drive I was about to take out of state. I walked in and avoided eye contact with everyone. Why smile? It doesn’t matter. People don’t notice, and they don’t care. And they never smile back.
So, I made up my mind: I wasn’t going to smile. I was going to stay in my little dark bubble and pretend no one else was there.
And so, when the guy at the coffee station made a joke about the hot chocolate I was putting in my coffee, I refused to engage him in conversation like I normally would have. Instead, I gave a slight nod, a bare minimum acknowledgment of his existence, and walked away.
I was feeling bratty, and I wanted the world to know it. I wanted the world to know what it had done to me. And I wanted the world to know that I had officially given up on it.
But then something happened. A light happened. A light in the form of a short, middle-aged woman with a green winter parka and a beautiful, contagious spirit. This woman was two people ahead of me in the line at the check-out counter.
Up until this point, everyone in the store had just been going through the motions: the cashier with her monotonous and disinterested “Hi, how are you, will this be all?” followed by the hurried reply from the anxious customer trying to rush her along, the mother standing in front of me engrossed in a vapid conversation with her teenage son about gum flavors, and then me, with my own self-consumed demeanor, just adding to the dismal environment. I was leaning against the counter, staring at my phone and doing my best to block out everything around me.
But then . . . the woman in the green parka stepped up for her turn to check out.
“A box of Marlboro Lights, please.”
Just an average woman making a simple request for a common brand of cigarettes. It was completely unassuming and yet it changed everything.
There was something very different about the sound of her request. The entire sentence she spoke sounded different because each word she used had been carefully formed through an authentic smile. I looked up.
This wasn’t your normal, polite, run-of-the-mill, fake, friendly smile. This was a SMILE. A genuine, full-of-feeling smile that she was giving for no reason at all. It was the kind you can’t help but stare at, completely entranced. The kind that makes even the hardest of hearts smile in return because it’s too amazing to leave hanging on its own. You want to join in. You want to smile. And smile we did.
Every single one of us got hit by it. All of a sudden, the cashier was full of energy and became engaged in conversation with the customers. She made eye contact and laughed, joked, and smiled for the first time since I had been in the store. The people ahead of me smiled and laughed. And then, most surprising of all given my own determination to make the world know how pissed off I was, I smiled and laughed.
I smiled the kind of smile that I secretly hate because it makes my face look all weird and contorted: full faced, eyes all crinkled up, cheeks stretched to the limit. But this time, I loved it.
I was happy because there is no possible way to smile that big and not be happy. And the reason I smiled that big is because the woman in the green parka’s smile had flooded me with the urge to choose happiness, the same way she had chosen happiness.
I am convinced this woman has a lot of trials in her life. We all do. But the difference is in how she chose to react to those trials. She was probably just as anxious, overwhelmed, and worried about life as the rest of us, and she seemed like she may have been struggling financially. She could have easily joined us in our miserable self-pity and no one would have blamed her. But instead, she chose the harder path. She chose to be a source of light rather than another source of darkness.
She understood that happiness is a daily, sometimes even moment to moment, decision, and somewhere along the lines she decided she was going to be happy despite her circumstances. She didn’t let all of the negative attitudes in the store bring her down and, because of her strength and light, she was actually able to lift the rest of us up. She chose to smile and what happened? It made other people happy.
That smile changed my entire day. I got in the car and was grinning ear to ear. I turned the radio up and sang every song. I looked at other people in the cars next to me at red lights and I smiled at them. I danced and drummed the dashboard and then laughed out loud at myself. I enjoyed the day.
I got stuck in Philly traffic for an hour which made my trip an hour longer than it should have been, and I didn’t care. I was laughing and dancing and singing and smiling and happy the whole time. All because of that woman’s decision.
I am so grateful to her for reminding me who I want to be: I want to be a spreader of light and love, even on the days and in the moments when it’s the hardest and when I don’t really feel like it. I want to smile anyway and do for other people what she did for me.
There were about five of us in line at Wawa whose days were completely turned around by that one smile. Suppose the five of us then smiled for the rest of the day and we each changed the days of five more people . . . That’s 25 happy people.
And then suppose us 25 happy individuals then smiled for the rest of the day and changed the days of five more people each . . . That’s 125 happy people. And what if it didn’t stop there?
What if one smile sparks another smile which sparks another, which starts a ripple effect of smiles until everyone in the world has experienced the true beauty and freedom that comes with choosing to be happy despite negative situations? What if we can in fact create a world full of smiles, and those smiles bring happiness, and that happiness brings love?
And all it took to start that love was a courageous woman who decided to believe and act on the crazy notion that one smile really can change the world.
I know it changed mine.
I spend my Mondays through Fridays taking care of my niece (3) and nephew (2), and it never ceases to amaze me how much I learn from them. Every day they provide me with some new insight on how to live a better life and be a better person. Lately it seems their lessons have been getting bigger and better, and the following are just a few of the many they’ve been schooling me in as of late:
Lesson One: Little kids have the right idea when it comes to approaching everyday life.
Each morning, they wake up excited to get the day started. Not only are they excited to see you, but they’re also just excited about life in general. Everything that happened in their lives the day before is long forgotten, and everything to come in the day ahead is a mystery that they don’t bother themselves with trying to figure out. They just live right there in the present moment, and are excited about that moment.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that little kids aren’t exactly happy about every single thing that happens to them. The claw mark on my face, an unfortunate result of my nephew’s opposition to nap time, is a very clear indicator of that. I’m just saying that they don’t let the negative keep them down for long. Give it time and they will be right back to their cheerful, happy, over-zealous selves, ready to laugh, play, and jump on top of you. (And fully willing to forgive you for making them take the nap in the first place.)
Why can’t I be more like that? I’m never going to be happy about every single detail in my life, but so often I let the negative parts of life rob me from fully experiencing or enjoying the positive. Even in my happiest moments, there’s always that dark corner in the way, way back of my mind reminding me that there is some task left unfinished, some relationship unresolved, or some situation un-figured out.
Even when I’m not consciously thinking about it, those nagging problems are always there, keeping at least a small percentage of my brain tuned in on them at all times. I spend so much of my time either living in the past or looking towards the future that I forget to just stop and focus on the present moment as it is. I forget to be excited about life.
I want to wake up in the morning excited, not for what the day will bring, but just excited for no reason at all. I want to wake up smiling, simply because I like life and am grateful for another day to live it. I want to embrace each moment as it comes and fully take it in. And, if that moment happens to be horrible, I want the attention span of a two year old and the uncanny ability to sincerely forget about the incident 10 minutes later.
Lesson Two: Little kids have the right idea when it comes to being themselves.
I’m presently sitting in the living room with the kids. We’re watching Elmo sing about snowmen and we’re having a pretty fantastic day. My niece is wearing a Cinderella dress with a USA soccer jersey on top, flower shoes on the wrong feet, and broken, bright green Mardi Gras beads around her neck. She’s holding a half eaten banana in one hand and a half eaten waffle in the other. She doesn’t care that she looks kind of ridiculous (although very, very adorable). She’s just dancing around the room and laughing like a hyena with golden curls that are covering her eyes and a smile that is literally taking up her whole face. She is completely herself.
If for some reason we had to leave the house, she wouldn’t even think twice about stepping out in her mis-matched ensemble. She wouldn’t want to change and, honestly, why should she have to? Her outfit makes her happy. It is unique, funny and silly – just like her – and would tell people that she’s comfortable being herself in any situation. Her actions are not controlled by the thoughts of other people, and her outfit isn’t either (although sometimes it would be nice if she kept on the outfit her aunt picked out for her).
There are very few people in my life that I can honestly say have seen me be 100% myself. It generally takes two or three times of me meeting a person before I feel like I can start letting my guard down, but even with most of my close friends, that guard is still partially up. Not even everyone in my immediate family truly knows me completely freed from inhibitions.
I used to hate this about myself and think of it as some weird personality defect that I would always have and never fully understand. But this year I’ve been learning a lot about myself and have been digging down to some pretty deep places and uncovering demons I forgot even existed.
I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well and have finally understood why I am so guarded around so many people and, remarkably, I’ve stopped hating myself for it. I’ve taken a lot of steps towards breaking those walls down, but I know I still have a long way to go – which is why watching my niece dance around today has been so refreshing to me.
Not many people have the courage to be completely themselves in every single situation, but those people are inspirational.
When you live life afraid of the judgment from others, you end up letting those people control your life. It’s none of my business what other people are thinking about me and, honestly, if I want to walk outside in a Cinderella dress with a soccer jersey and flower shoes on, why shouldn’t I? Other people would probably stare, but then again, maybe it would give them the courage to do the same.
I’m so lucky to get to spend so much time with these kids and so blessed to be their student in the art of living.
Now I’m going to go learn some more and dance like a crazy person with my niece.
Oh, and one more thing:
Don’t Forget To Love Yourself.