We receive a weekly magazine that rounds up the news of the world, condenses it, offers helpful graphics, and adds a collection of art, film, restaurant and book reviews in a reasonably tidy and fairly impartial fashion. On one page, in a sidebar, it offers a few tidbits from tabloids, I think in an effort to leaven all the “serious” updates reminding us that the world is dark and dangerous.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a paragraph about a British woman, now 50, who has avoided smiling “for the last 40 years…to ward off wrinkles.” She says she didn’t smile when her child was born, nor at family celebrations or gatherings with friends, insisting her lack of facial wrinkles has made these efforts worthwhile.
I guess this silliness, which I might otherwise have dismissed with a laugh (deepening my own considerable wrinkles), has lingered in my thoughts because it’s reminded me how many times smiles have made a difference in my life.
Like many women my age, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy offering care to dependent, or dying members of my various tribes, those chosen and inherited, and I’m so grateful for the times a smile has saved my spirit, utterly.
It’s hard to believe in a world where people insist everything costs something, but a smile has more potential power to change a life than few things, if any thing, money can buy. I know this was true for my mother, during all the long years she cared for my father following his stroke. She would tell me story after story of the kindnesses friends and strangers had offered that brightened her days, which could be very dark indeed. And when a nurse, or doctor, or insurance adjuster or gas station attendant–whoever intersected her hectic, often harrowing days—shared a smile, it seemed to ease her burdens so profoundly that she’d “save” these stories to tell me when I visited her.
And there are so very many times each day that my family, friends, 4-leggeds, students, observations, memories, and views from the window or along the trail invite my smiles that I can’t imagine holding back the impulse in order to prevent wrinkles. Smiling makes me happy, as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, or perhaps makes me appreciate more deeply all the sources of joy that exist here and now in my life.
Keeping vigils at a hospital bedsides, feeling overwrought with worries, enduring losses, suffering harsh treatment by someone for something…we all have moments when a passing smile would ease our hearts. We walk and drive by people every day in need of our smiles. And so often, it seems, our own concerns prevent us from making the effort to offer this gift, which can relieve our own miseries as well. If only for a moment, a smile offers breathing space to both giver and receiver.
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness… Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
So the unsmiling, unwrinkled woman will, I guess, look very beautiful when she dies, appearing years younger than she actually is, but how sad that no one will recall how her smile brightened their day, changed their lives, or lifted their spirits.
Let us go forth and smile, joyfully wrinkled and wrinkled by joy!
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