By Sophfronia Scott
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
~Thích Nhầt Hạnh
I moved to New York City after college. I quickly learned that smiling, for the most part, was not a good thing. A smile attracted unwanted attention, especially from men who equated it with an invitation and who would send catcalls my way as I walked down the street. Being an inexperienced young woman, I didn't know how to deal with such behavior. I felt annoyed, harassed, and powerless. Eventually I cultivated a kind of neutral expression that I wore every time I went outside. If I smiled at a stranger it was forced, a polite return of a smile. My true smile came out only with my loved ones.
In 2002 I began training to become a life coach. Many of my teachers and fellow classmates recommended the original Chicken Soup for the Soul book. I had heard of The New York Times bestseller, but I'd never read it. I figured I should read it if only to have the text "under my belt" as part of my personal-development knowledge base. I had read only thirty-seven pages when I came across the story that changed my outlook about the way I looked as I walked through the world: "The Smile."
Contributor Hanoch McCarty told the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote The Little Prince as well as a lesser-known piece, "The Smile," that was possibly based on Saint-Exupéry's own experience as a captured fighter pilot in the Spanish Civil War. The pilot, nervous and frightened because he's certain he will be executed the next day, finds a cigarette in his pockets and asks his jailer for a light. The jailer agrees and comes forward with a match. As he gets closer, he looks at his prisoner and their eyes lock unexpectedly. The pilot smiles at him. In that moment it's as though the prisoner, not the jailer, has ignited a light. The jailer warms to him. The two men begin to discuss their families and even share pictures. Later the jailer decides to release the pilot and lead him to safety. I remember being absolutely stunned by the words: "My life was saved by a smile."
McCarty goes on to say that when the pilot smiled it was a "magic moment when two souls recognize each other." I recognized that moment too and to me it felt so full of hope and possibility. The next morning on my way to work I stopped in a deli and bought a cup of tea. When the server handed me the cup I smiled and said thank you. He stepped back and for a moment looked confused. Then he smiled and said, "I've been doing this all morning, but you're the first person to smile at me." I just nodded, smiled again and left.
I couldn't believe how good I felt — I actually felt more like myself! As I continued to smile throughout the days, weeks and months I noticed an amazing cycle: The more I smiled, the friendlier everything seemed; and the friendlier everything seemed, the more I smiled. It also seemed to me that the smiles I received in return were not just polite smiles. I felt a momentary connection with the person, as though we had come to an agreement that all was right with the world.
Before reading McCarty's story I had thought that a smile made me passive and powerless, and invited unwanted attention. Afterwards my view was just the opposite. Smiling gave me strength. I could change myself, and the people I encountered, by simply smiling. In fact over the years I've come to observe how, as Andy Andrews say in his book, The Traveler's Gift, "My smile has become my calling card. It is, after all, the most potent weapon I possess." Boxers lead with their left or right jabs. I lead with my smile.
Here's an example. Recently I became a substitute bus driver in my son's school district. The more I drove the more I heard the other drivers complain about a new crossing guard, the person who controls the flow of traffic so the huge fleet of buses can get in and out of the school's driveways quickly and safely. The guard, an older man, seemed unsure in his decision making, which often resulted in long lines of backed up traffic. Most days he looked harried and worried. He knew he wasn't doing a good job. I would see buses pass by him with the drivers looking impatient, annoyed or downright angry. I wanted things to be different for the guard. I felt bad that all these people were sending such negativity in his direction.
Then I realized I did have the power to change at least one interaction in his day. One morning when the crossing guard signaled me to pull into the school, I inched the bus forward. Then, just before I began my turn, I made eye contact, gave him a tiny wave and a big smile. He saw me. His face softened and something like relief washed over his features. He waved back with his own smile as I continued my turn.
That's it. That's all it took. I knew I had made a difference in his day just by that one "magic moment" of connection. And even though I have yet to speak a word to this man, I know he recognizes me because we repeat this little ritual each time he sees me behind the wheel.
Now, take that one moment and multiply it by the millions of times I've smiled since reading the Saint-Exupéry/McCarty story. That's a lot of magic conjured by the spontaneous flashing of teeth. I can't speak for the people who have been on the receiving end of these smiles, but I can say this for myself: my life is so much brighter, so much more joyous, that I can't imagine how I lived without such light. I hope I can inspire others to share their happiness just as freely. I smile just thinking about it.