1. Beautiful People
Today I’m thinking about a story told by my teacher (when I was in first grade), and a fascinating story it was. A story about something we all have in abundance. That caught my full attention because in my childhood the only thing we had in abundance was ‘want’. Want of money, want of food, want of warm clothes, and want of enough coal for the long winter.
And more surprising, the something in the story, though precious, was meant to be given to others fast and furiously, yet it could never be depleted. Because always as much as one gave away, the same, or more, would be returned. And the exchange, whether giving or taking, would bring much joy. How amazing is that!
Obviously, ‘This is either a new fairy-tale, or a pretend situation similar to the trick of my Dad pinching my nose and playfully extracting it between two fingers and putting it in his pocket. A story, like the extracted nose trick, that requires me to pretend something is real, that isn’t real.’
Pretend or not, the answer was eventually revealed, and the answer, of course, was ‘a smile’.
I was a wee bit disappointed but still I smiled at the story and so did my classmates and as we glanced (and smiled) at each other, for one quick moment the joy that the story promised for ‘the exchange’ was felt. True to the tale, but the recompense rather short-lived. And so I began to give much thought to the worth of smiles.
And that is when I noticed that in Sunday School papers there were always children who ceaselessly smiled. Children with ruddy glowing faces and great broad and beaming smiles.
I envied their beauty and could only think it was because they were wrapped in pure thoughts, silver notions, and God-possessed grace. The orphan child’s face, the forgotten waif’s, the thin hungry child – all of them – depicted with beaming beautiful smiles. It mattered not that they faced such obstacles. Regardless of their many trials, they peeked at me from those pages with optimistic delight. I guess if you have enough discipline, self-confidence, and righteous grace, it is not possible to be ruffled by want or cruel misfortune.
And so I envied their happiness. I envied their happiness when they had reasons to be happy. But I envied even more the individuals who were happy when they had so little to be happy about. It never occurred to me that their flat world of printed and color-washed sketches was too vastly separated from my reality to even have relevance.
I reveled in their glowing faces and broad smiles that made them so stunningly beautiful. That is what I wanted as well – to be that beautiful. So I tried desperately to clone the personalities revealed in the stories that surrounded them. I tried to clone their purity, grace, patience, forgiveness, and staunch self-confidence in their own righteousness.
But it was not so easy. Classmates taunted me for my valiant goody two-shoes efforts. Even my teacher became impatient, as did my parents and siblings, with this great and wonderful righteous thing I was trying to do.
And so, before long, I had a different take on the perpetual glowing smiling face. I was still a pre-adolescent when I realized that life is not something to be taken that lightly. Life is a struggle. A struggle to do well in school. A struggle to make friends. A struggle to feel good about wearing hand-me-downs, that are neither fashionable, colorful, fresh-looking, or warm. All of these obstacles added up to too much embarrassment and degradation for me to pass around smiles all day long without reservation.
Furthermore, as time passed, I met too many people that smiled too much. There was the nurse my Mom knew whose face was forever flushed with an ironic smirk-smile. A smile that deviously attempted to mask her distaste for all of life and the inhabitants in it.
And there was the Sunday School teacher that smiled too much in an attempt to clone wholesomeness beneath a private wealth of sins. And there was the School Bus driver that smiled too much in an attempt to always look professional (I guess). And there was the man and his team of perpetual smilers who walked the streets shaking hands and knocking at doors for several weeks in order to gain support for a local upcoming election.
There was the half-wit in town sweeping the sidewalks and perpetually smiling at some nonsensical nothingness. There was the neighbor who smiled all the time but in all things was such a failure because his smile was a cover for all he did not understand about finances, farming, or the seriousness of life. I began to think they were a bunch of fools. Foolish people smile all the time. People too foolish to realize life is serious business and all applications of it, serious as well.
Obviously, with these observations, I could only conclude that the value of a smile is both overstated and overrated, and so it quickly became a shabby accessory in my books.
Cont’d: Next Post: The Wounded Look