The Gift of a Smile

Years ago when my boys were little and not yet in school, I took them to the Aquarium in Boston for one of our many day trips. It turned into one of those bleak New England days of gray skies, a steady drizzle, and temperatures so cold the chill seemed to seep into our bones. And, of course, none of us were really dressed for the weather that materialized. I remember the long, slow slog back to our car, holding one cranky toddler’s hand and pushing the other in the stroller, hunkered down against the elements, and feeling sorry for myself. And then we passed a woman who looked at me with a knowing smile of pure empathy, as if saying “I know it sucks, we’ve all been there, you’re doing a great job. Hang in there!” While I can’t remember anything else about this woman and we spent no more than three seconds meeting each other’s gaze, the effect her smile had on my mood has stayed with me for 15 years. Being truly “seen” and metaphorically embraced in that moment of struggle lifted me up. I felt bathed in light. My little burden seemed inconsequential. I smiled back. I even felt as if I was earning some awesome Mom points. Such is the power of a smile, of human connection, of the ripple effect of sharing your light with the world.

When I think of the effect I would like to have on the world, I often get overwhelmed by the daunting effort needed to move the needle on important issues such as the continued victimization of women, racial inequality, violence, hate, to name but a few. Fearing that my efforts won’t make a difference leads me to inertia. But when I think of this woman’s compassionate smile as a small gesture in our huge world, I am inspired and buoyed.

What if we all decided to pay forward some small kindness someone graced us with? What chain of change could we set in motion by offering a small acknowledgement to someone, that they then can pay forward to their children, partner, co-workers, and others? Little changes that can then ripple outward to bigger and bigger circles, touching people we will never know, creating a larger cumulative change.

One way I like do this is to smile or wave to every cyclist I pass when I’m on my road bike. I want to silently say to them “We are in this together. Isn’t it great to be alive and outside?” It has the added benefit of challenging my “don’t take it personally” muscle, as most other cyclists don’t smile or wave back. But I keep offering, because I know how amazing it feels to be seen. I hope that even if they can’t wave back, I’ve sent out a tiny little ripple of light that will find them later. There are innumerable little changes we can make by offering grace to each other on a daily basis: putting the phone down to look a cashier in the eyes, and asking sincerely how they are doing; leaving a 20% tip, even if the server was having an off day; offering a wave of thanks to a driver that stops when you’re in the crosswalk, even though they are supposed to stop. When we give in these little ways, we will collectively make the world a better place. One small gesture at a time.

Has a small kindness from a stranger ever had a big effect on you? Or do you have a favorite way to be a small change in the world? Please let me know in a comment below!

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