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.