I had a pleasing revelation earlier today — there weren’t enough fingers on my hands to count the number of people who I shared a meaningful smile with when I was out doing my weekly quarantine grocery shopping. That means that I shared a smile with over ten people which, on a normal day in my hometown of Carlisle in England, would make me more than slightly paranoid that I had left the house without wiping toothpaste from my mouth.
It feels weirdly ironic that I am currently seeing and interacting with fewer people than I have done for most of my adult life due to this pandemic, yet I am connecting with more people than ever in a meaningful and authentic way through the simple act of sharing a smile.
A long time hobby of mine is smiling at strangers in the hope that they return the favor and a meaningful moment is shared, it now seems that everyone else in my town has joined me in my pass time. It’s a heart-warming feeling and it’s giving me the sense that I’m part of a community, which is something that I didn’t have before.
My sense of joy at this recent change is tempered with sadness — did it really have to take a pandemic for my local community to start smiling? It makes me wonder if this sense of community that I have recently found will continue on into the post-pandemic world.
There are smiles, and there are smiles. The kind that truly touches people come from an intentional act borne in kindness. The kind that we barely notice come from unconscious reflexes motivated by social etiquette. The latter kind of smile, the robotic one, doesn’t mean much at all. It doesn’t broker a connection between two people, it merely serves as a socially accepted way of recognizing that you have seen another human being. I am well used to receiving this kind of robotic smile, I would guess that most of you are too and I’m sure you’ll agree that it doesn’t have much of an impact on you when you receive one.
A true smile can do wondrous things to your mental health. I have several vivid memories of instances when I have been feeling low in mood, sitting on a bench in my town-center and stewing in negativity, only to be lifted out of my darkness through the olive branch provided to me by a stranger who smiled at me for a brief moment as they passed by. Instantly, I stop feeling so alone, like I’m a ghost in the middle of a thriving world, because someone made the effort to pierce through the film of sadness that surrounded me. A true smile has this power to penetrate deep into the heart of the person it is directed at and provide them with a sense of joy, irrespective of how bad they might be feeling.
When someone is suffering and you smile at them, it is like a breath of air to someone who’s drowning — it may well save them. I am witness to this powerful effect when I smile at my grandmother as she cries out in frustration due to the confusion caused by her dementia. I smile and her tears stop for a second, her eyes meet mine and she sighs with relief. She may continue crying, but it’s different, she is no longer crying out in anger, but crying on the shoulder of someone who she knows has love for her.
During this pandemic, I have been seeing a lot more of the true smiles than I have the robotic ones. Considering that I have been suffering from periods of low mood more frequently than usual, I am extremely thankful that the therapeutic effect of a shared smile has been so readily available. Perhaps quarantine-life has lead people to have more of an appreciation for such things because human contact is so hard to come by. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and I think that this may well be true of how we all feel when we are deprived of our readily available supply of ‘human-contact-centers’; shopping malls, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, places of work, etc. We suddenly realize how we took the comforting joy of being near to other people for granted and now, with at least six feet separating all of us, we remember the magical power that a true smile has to connect people who are more than touching distance apart.
In one of the grocery stores I visited today, as I stood in the queue waiting to pay, the guy in front of me was arguing with the cashier. He was holding up the queue as he filled out his lotto ticket on the cash-counter — which he wasn't even meant to be touching due to social-distancing rules. The cashier was telling him to move on, he was telling her to “F**k off”.
In the middle of this argument, the man turned around for a second and met my eyes, his lips trembled on the edge of opening, probably so he could yell something like “What you staring at!”
In that brief moment when our eyes locked, I paused for a moment and reflected. I thought ‘this man must really be suffering for him to lash out in anger like this’.
I could smell whiskey coming from him. His tracksuit was covered in stains. A pair of tattered slippers were barely hanging to his feet. I looked back up at his eyes — they were vacant and sad. It was clear he was struggling.
With kindness I smiled at this man — his shoulders dropped and his eyes opened a little, he seemed kind of surprised. The edge of his mouth slightly lifted, a tentative smile back? He turned back to the counter, sighed and shook his head. It seemed like his anger was melting away.
After muttering a few words under his breath, the man picked up his shopping bags and shuffled out the store.
When was the last time someone had looked at this man with kindness? When was the last time that someone had smiled at him? When someone is behaving in such an offensive manner, smiling at them can seem like the last thing we ought to do, but it is perhaps when a smile can be most valuable.
A true smile is a powerful and important act of human kindness that has the power to build bridges between yourself and the most unlikely of people. We all have this ability at our disposal, we just need to remember to use it.
When you are feeling low, try to remind yourself of the profoundly healing effect that sharing a smile with a stranger can have. Next time you go out, don’t think about how few people you will see because of this pandemic, or how little time you will have outside, instead think about the positive impact you could have on someone else and yourself through making the effort to smile at them.
When someone smiles at me from the depths of their heart I feel appreciated for my humanity.
Today I walked passed a woman who was standing outside of a recently closed Starbucks while she re-arranged her heavy grocery bags. She heard my approaching footsteps echoing in the empty street, she looked up and smiled at me warmly, I returned the favor. She didn’t know who I was, what I had or hadn’t achieved in my life, but she still smiled and I still smiled back.
Nothing beats the feeling of being appreciated by someone for the simple reason that you are a human just like them. A smile from a stranger has that effect, it is a celebration of complete equality between two human beings.
If kindness is a contagion, then a smile is the most efficient carrier of this altruistic ‘disease’. I hope that this article has inspired you to do your bit to aid the spread of kindness in your towns and communities through simply smiling more often — with any luck we might be able to make a kindness pandemic a genuine possibility.
Thanks For Reading,