When You’re Smiling

There are things that are too big for us humans: pain, loneliness and death, but also beauty, sublimity and happiness. For them we created religion. What happens when we lose it? Those things are still too big for us.” —Pascal Mercier

There are things that are too big for us humans: pain, loneliness and death, but also beauty, sublimity and happiness. For them we created religion. What happens when we lose it? Those things are still too big for us.” —Pascal Mercier

I stride through the supermarket on a mission. It’s Friday evening. I want to get home to my family, have a glass of wine with Caroline and cook a slow weekend dinner. I’m in a hurry, but a good one. I run into a few people, exchange greetings. Hudson’s a small town.

Everyone’s smiling at me. What’s that all about? I smile back. Feels good. I’m making eye contact. I turn an aisle and almost knock down a burly working guy. Before he has a chance to react I grab his eyes with mine and squeeze a smile into them.

Who is this? No, not him. I mean me.

Once upon a time, my greatest wish was to be invisible. I found it easier to presume most people were hostile. Eye contact was a necessary evil. I was well into middle age when my daughter Melanie urged me to turn up the corners of my mouth. “They’re always down in a frown,” she said. I went to the mirror and stared. She was right! I’d been looking in mirrors for years and never seen that. How could it be?

Forcing the facial muscles didn’t work. I pushed fruitlessly against long habit. The frowning was etched in my face by years of deflection. Gradually, I found the stress behind it and let go one grimace at a time. A smile began to reveal itself. In time, my eyebrows relaxed too. The clouds lifted. I liked people.

The memory of unhappiness is opaque, like a dream; it doesn’t really hurt, at least not directly. What’s more disturbing is the absence of happy memories, years gone by with no emotional trace.

My mother wouldn’t like me writing this down for the world to see. She meticulously concealed all her disappointments behind a gracious smile and a lightly spoken, “never mind.” She never fooled me though. My siblings followed in her footsteps but I was the black sheep.

Unhappiness is socially incorrect. It’s messy, it embarrasses others. It’s inconsiderate. In polite society one can emote only so much, preferably by being cheerful. Disdaining that social nicety got me into all sorts of trouble, but in the long run it was a blessing. I’ve been more confused in life by my self than anything else, but I learned one thing: hide an emotion from the world and you hide it from yourself too.

That’s a tragedy, plain and simple. To be out of touch with your own emotion is to put it beyond reach. How can you change what you don’t acknowledge? Thoughts adapt to argument and experience, but emotions have to express themselves one way or another. Suppressed anger becomes resentment. Deflected sadness turns into depression.

But who will listen to all your self-doubt and inner wrangling? Friends like that are few and far between.

Many people settle for acquaintanceships, thinking they’ve missed out on real friendship, or are unfit for it. It’s easier to play by the nice rules and remain in good standing, but spending your time safely like this distracts from the opportunity to share the big questions of happiness and unhappiness with a real intimate. Meanwhile, time is passing.

Even the most familiar of acquaintances is very different from a friend. Friends are those who tell you what you don’t want to hear when you don’t want to hear it, and know how to get it in your ear. They commiserate. They’re people who’ve been as baffled by their own lives as you are by yours. They’ve faced up to their own unhappiness. They know we’re all only human.

That’s why, when I teach a Quiet Mind workshop, I feel so at home. I sit with people who are eager to explore all sides of themselves, not just the pleasantries.

And at home, I’m truly blessed by my family. They tell me all the stuff I don’t want to hear and that no one else want to tell me. I love them for it. There’s no greater gift. Sometimes it’s tough, but in the end it makes me smile. Really.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

11 thoughts on “When You’re Smiling”

  1. Dear Sir

    The reason you may not have had a response to such a positive blog is that I am stipulating it did not transfer out to your readers.
    As a matter of fact, I had to go directly to your site to read this blog as I did not get a prompt in my e mail as usual.


    1. Thanks for notifying me Ralph: a little glitch prevented the normal email going out. Everyone should be receiving it this morning.

  2. Good morning Stephen,

    The prompt worked this morning. The best authentic smiles are those that come from the heart. Sometimes they come facing the unpleasant situations of life. They can act like that pause before conditioned responses occur and they can certainly make you take life a little less seriously.

  3. I don’t know if true friends tell it like it is. What usually happens is that we know what is the ‘truth’ but aren’t ready to see it yet. Our friends may know too, but they are supportive and understanding and help us in our journey to reveal the ‘truth’ to ourselves at our own pace, rather than standing in front of us and pulling us along to it. They stand besides us. One of the greatest treasures of friendship is that it is different from family, who love to tell you the ‘truth!’ The friend stands more in non-judgment, and is by your side whether or not they think what you’re doing is ‘right.’ They’re there anyway. That’s why I treasure so very deeply my deep friendship with my friend, that has lasted more than 29 years. We’re there, we’re listening, and we feel free to talk because we know we have each other’s back and we’re not going to judge. We’re just there for each other. Very different from what I tell my family (mother, sisters) who love to share with each other what I said (!) and who judge. When you feel you’ll be judged, you have to be careful what you say, because it can come back and bite you. Friendship is different, it’s safer!:-) I have had the true blessing in my life of having a really good friend, and I am very grateful for that blessing.

    1. You’re right Georgia, it’s also a matter of timing. In the end, we need our friends to get through to us when we’re too hard-headed to get through to ourselves.

    2. I’m sorry you are hurting. No matter how few or how many regrets we have in life, we’ll let life pass us by if we focus on the regrets we have. I have two major regrets. One having to do with a stepbrother’s suicide and one having to do with trusting in the wrong person. I can’t let them eat me up and let life pass by. Another thing? When I had the TIA in August, I knew exactly what was going through my mind as the doctors and nurses talked to my family over my head about ICU and life-altering changes. I was focused on the fact that I had been able to tell each of my children in the day or so previous, how much they truly mean to my life. If your son knows that, Phoenix, then just go forward and see what life has to offer. I’m 43 and my life is only just beginning. If you need a friend, you know where I am.

  4. During the war Mum and dad ran a restaurant in Kensington to keep the military brass fed during the blitz. In one air raid a bomb took off the roof, then a few night later the place was leveled. That second night a friend and customer was killed by an incendiary during the same raid. She couldn’t face the underground crowds and took her chances at home. Mum was eight months pregnant. Dad moved her promptly into a leaky caravan in Ascot, where she caught pheumonia and still managed to give birth. She always wore a wistful smile while recounting this story, and ended with a quiet, “Oh well. Never mind.”

    The war generation. A whole other mindset.

  5. I don’t agree. Don’t get me wrong, everyone in my society takes me as good tempered because I give smiles & gestures like that to everyone: young, old, poor, rich. This has left me far away from my society, even from my family. I can’t speak my feelings, my emotions etc. for I had never exposed my inner self, my nature, my problems, my theories to anyone, and if I do then I will come to zero in my elders reviews. This has led to Alienation, and I am suffering.

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