The Smilist

In the past month I have seen numerous people flip others off, a woman kick another woman’s dog, a group of teenagers pick on a very young boy and two construction workers pin a well dressed man up against the wall. I have heard people constantly judging one another, talking critically about each other and cursing each other. When I turn on the television (which is not often) I am met with gun fire, explosions, blood, fighting and a whole digital community of unhappiness and war. It seems to me like Dante’s Inferno can now be accessed through the television. As a result of all this brutality and negativity the smile seems to have become extinct. For weeks I have been paying attention to smiling. I look for it on people’s faces in the same way a hunter would search for its prey. I must say that if I cared enough about this I would take immediate action and have the smile added to the list of endangered species. With the economic recession, environmental catastrophe, continuous wars and mind-boggling epidemics of starvation- it makes sense to me that the smile would be the first thing to go.

In my search for a smile (it does not even have to be a smile, I will take a half-smile) I loitered around downtown city centers. I sat on benches or out front of cafe’s and spent hours observing people as they passed by. Other than being a bit unsettled by the trance like state that the majority of people seem to walk through their life in, a smile was as difficult to find as a good lover. When I did see a person with a smile on their face it warmed my heart and gave me hope for a future that was not hopeless, broke, downtrodden, defeated and without joy. But these smiles were few and far between and normally only lasted for a few seconds.

I understand that we are living through difficult times. In searching for smiles on people’s faces I am witnessing the fundamental tenet of Western philosophy play itself out- as within, so without or the macrocosm is always reflected in the microcosm. The lack of smiles on people’s faces are simply a reflection of all the breakdowns we are experiencing in our world. Knowing this it feels difficult for me to do nothing. I to have given into the lazy pleasures of negativity and grinning. I to have been walking around with a metaphorical brick upon my back. I to have become cynical about everything, even my own life. So to combat this metaphysical crisis I bought myself a white suit, a white hat and decided to force a smile on my face.

It was the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who said that if we make ourselves smile, even when we do not feel like it, that smile will release certain chemicals in our brain that will make us feel better. He also said that smiling is contagious. So in an act of protest against the epidemic of depression, stress, worry and generalized negativity disorder I decided that for one week I would put on my white suit, my white hat, go downtown and walk around with a smile tattooed on my face.

I smiled at everyone. Every passer-by I attempted to make eye contact with. My intention was to smile into their eyes. I sat on benches, crossed my legs and smiled at people as they walked by. I walked slowly through various downtown city centers and tried to wipe the unhappiness off of people’s faces with my smile. I smiled at dogs. I smiled at police officers. I smiled at my reflection in the shop windows as I passed by. I smiled at passengers in cars and I smiled at every person on a bicycle. My smile did not discriminate. My smile was not prejudiced. My smile saw every living being as equal and I desperately wanted to save the smile from extinction. The only problem I ran into was that no one smiled back.

Many doctors and scientists will tell you that most systemic infections are very difficult to kill. Once these infections sprout in their host, the body in which the infection dwells forgets what it was like to live without the infection. These are why some infections become so life threatening- they alter the entire environment in which they dwell and gradual colonize the entire body. Infections of the mind and spirit such as negativity, worry, depression, despair, dis-satisfaction, self-hatred, etc., can be very difficult to defeat with a smile. The grin or the long face settles like stone onto its host. A smile is a huge threat to the grin. The grin wants to destroy the smile, it is agitated by the smile and will do anything to not be reminded of the happiness that could threaten its place upon the face. I do not know if it was my white suit that angered certain people, my smile or maybe a combination of both but I was sadly surprised by the kind of response a simple smile could get.

“Fag,” “pervert,” “psycho,” “weirdo,” “freak,” “mental patient” and “homo” where just a few words that were reactively hurled my way. After the fourth day of walking around downtown in my white suit and smiling I was questioned by the police for what they called “my suspicious behavior.” They asked me what I did for a job, where I lived, why I was just wondering around downtown all day? They even asked me if I was affiliated with any religious groups, trying to see if there was a possible terrorist connection. On the fifth day a few people threw things at me. One lady who I smiled at threw her vanilla frozen yogurt all over my white suit. The more I smiled, it seemed as if the more I was triggering the beast. On my last day of walking around downtown with a smile upon my face I was so distraught about how much anger and fear a simple smile could elicit that by noon I was sitting alone on a bar stool already drunk. I will never forget my long walk home that afternoon. It was a defeated walk. A sad walk. A walk in which I had to come to terms with the fact that misery loves company and it seemed as if I was no longer a part of “the tribe.” I felt alone, isolated. I walked slowly, drunkenly with the yogurt stain upon my lapel. I cried and I laughed but I never stopped smiling. Not until I got home.

I still smile. However, the white suit hangs in my closet and I am done playing the role of the smilist. Maybe Darwin was right and I need to adapt or perish. Maybe the race of humans that I belong to is becoming an unhappy race of people who have no use for a smile? Whatever the case may be I now know that smiling can put my own safety at risk so I try not to do it as frequently. When I am home alone I smile. I smile in the shower and I smile in my backyard. I smile when I watch the wind rustle through the trees and I smile when I watch my dog prance around. My smile is a genuine smile- a smile that is not afraid to be happy simply to be alive. But when I go out I try and keep my smile to myself. I don’t grin but I do not smile either. I have found a comfortable position in which to keep my lips that is half way between a smile and a grin. I am adapting but not giving in.

A Few Things I Forgot To Tell My Therapist

I spoke to my therapist for my allotted fifty minutes today. Because I did not feel like driving to the office I spoke with my therapist on the phone. I was sitting in my garage staring off into space for most of my conversation with her. I did not have much to say and it was one of those conversations where what I did say did not seem to accurately mirror the feelings that floated around inside of me. As time floated forward I tried to speak of things that I knew I needed to talk about- but no matter how hard I tried I just was not in the mood to talk about myself. I had spent most of the morning and afternoon alone in my garage- the silence had over taken me and I just could not get into the psychotherapy flow. However, once I got off the phone and a few hours passed, I realized there were several things that I forgot to tell my therapist.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I have been spending a lot of time, too much time, calling myself names like “idiot,” “stupid,” “jerk,” “fool” and “asshole” (to name a few). Accusing myself of doing the wrong thing or of being in the position that I am in life and punishing myself for it. I know of no greater psychological pain than to chronically punish ones own self. When I engage in this kind of internal torture I fall into a kind of depressive limbo where getting things done feels as difficult as solving that rubik’s cube thing that was popular in the 80’s. I spend my days hovering around like a hawk with its wings spread in the sky- but going nowhere. It looks effortless up there but in here it is requiring a lot of  energy, so much so that when it comes time for bed I am asleep before I am able to turn out the lights.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I spent all day yesterday counseling one of my old students who was on the verge of committing suicide. She is 18 years old and ran away from home over a year ago. Her father was abusive and her mother enabling. She refuses to return to the homestead and has been left living on couches, struggling for cash (can not get a job because she does not have a green card even though she was born in America) and a few months back managed to almost take her life. She is suffering from a terrible affliction- hopelessness. She feels alone and like there is only one exit. I could relate with her- it was frightening how much I could relate. I made her and myself write down this passage from a Langston Hughes poem:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
…And places with no carpet on the floor —
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Talking about my problems today after hearing about hers felt futile. I have a roof over my head, people who love me, a couple of dollars in my bank account, a dog, a cat, a phenomenal therapist and a lover who takes care of me, really who am I to engage in self-absorbed narratives? A part of me thinks this way at least. The other part of me agrees with the Buddha. Life is suffering= rwe all suffer (some are better than others at hiding or repressing their suffering) and even though my life situation may be better than many others my emotional pain is still very real and deep. Even though I have much to be grateful for there is still this uncomfortable emotional pain. There are still splinters.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I have not shaved in over a week because I do not care what  look like. Where once I took a great deal of concern and care with regards to my image- I now give it maybe twenty minutes of thought a week. Shaving is often the first beauty practice to go when one loses interest with their image. The next thing to usually go (for a man at least) is the flat stomach and my tummy is beginning to take the shape of a round ball.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I have started to talk with birds that skip around and sing in the branches of the tree that sits just outside my bedroom window (more about this large oak tree later). It is only fair- they sing to me and I talk to them, thank them. I have also started reading them poetry at night. This is an exercise that I have been doing the past week. I will drink a bottle of organic white wine, smoke one of my fathers cigars and then rather than turn on the television I will go outside and read poetry to the birds whom I can not see sitting in the trees but I know they are there. Some of them start to sing as I am reading to them.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I have been drinking alcohol everyday. Alcohol seems to create just the right kind of alchemical reaction within that thing that is often refereed to as a soul. I like and need its temporary effects. I have also been doing Yoga almost everyday- just to assuage my guilt. However I am no fool. Drinking wine and beer on a daily basis is a Faustian bargain- short term gain for long term pain.

I forgot to tell my therapist that most of my socks have holes in them and my underwear is becoming tattered as well. I know that I should care about these things– but I do not put much importance in things anymore. I have learned that things come and they go, why try and get rid of the holes?

I forgot to tell my therapist that I cry everyday.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I have resorted to hugging trees for consolation.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I would rather spend my time with a dog than a human being.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I am spending a lot more time now just being present and having little concern for the future.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I am neglecting many things that should get done.

I forgot to tell my therapist that my lover is feeding me well, caring for me and that I enjoy the time that I am spending with her. Life does feel much easier now.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I feel claustrophobic in the shower.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I have this strange compulsion to dress in a black suit and walk around the country club in which I am currently staying.

I forgot to tell my therapist that I now know what was meant by “dark night of the soul.”

Oh, and finally I forgot to tell my therapist about this large oak tree. The one that sits just outside my bedroom window and is making this deep, long, languorous, yawning sound every time even the slightest breeze blows. The tree sways from side to side and has started to rub up against the house. I can see where it is putting pressure on the wall besides my bed. The sounds it is making are hunting, melancholic- so beautiful to my ears. It is as if the tree is trying to tell me something and I just keep carefully listening hoping that one day soon I will find out.