“Just Smile”

In my life, I have been told many times that I should smile. Most of the time by strangers who don’t know me at all and have no idea what I have been through or what I’m currently going through. I will never forget one man in particular, several years ago. I was at work and I was having a very bad day. My depression was like a weight crushing me, keeping me locked inside my own mind. I just wanted to be alone (as one often does when this happens), but I was surrounded by people. I walked past this man and did not say a word or look at him, but he physically stopped me to say (with hefty condescension, I might add),

“Jesus, it can’t be that bad. Smile!”

For a second or two, I was angry and I thought about telling him that I was fighting off crippling depression and anxiety on a daily basis. Not only this, I had just lost my mother very unexpectedly a few months earlier, and Christmas was coming up. My first Christmas without my mom.

I don’t even remember if I responded to him. I do remember how I felt afterward, though. I felt vulnerable. I felt guilty. I felt even more depressed that my heart was on my sleeve and I couldn’t hide it. For the rest of the day, I was fighting tears.

Now, some might say that telling someone else to smile is a nice thing to do. It shows that they care about you, that they are noticing your unhappiness and they want you to be happy. Except that it isn’t what they want at all. They want you to smile because they want you to smile, to make themselves happy. Your apparent unhappiness makes them uncomfortable and offends them. It is an incredibly selfish thing to say to another person.

The fact of the matter is, no one has any idea what another person is going through. It is impossible to understand someone else’s pain. You might be able to relate to it, but you cannot understand it.

Maybe that woman on the train this morning wasn’t smiling because she was just having a rough morning. The train was late, she spilled her coffee on her white shirt, and she was late for work. Or maybe she just ended a seven-year relationship with someone she thought was the love of her life, the person she thought she would marry. How in the world could you know? You couldn’t.

Now, I am not saying that if you see someone who looks sad or upset, you should ignore them and do nothing. Absolutely do something. But don’t tell them to smile.

Instead, try this: smile at them. Make eye contact. Say hello. Start a conversation with a stranger. Make them feel like a person, not a burden. Chances are, you will get your smile back.

—JLH

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