When we were little children, we had no trouble smiling great 1000-watt smiles that lit up our eyes. We’d smile at anyone who wasn’t pitching rocks and insults at us. We might even smile meek little smiles of confusion at those who were – it must surely be a game, and we simply hadn’t learned the rules, yet. We didn’t hesitate to blurt out, “You’re nice. I like you!” at people who seemed nice and likable. We broke out in spontaneous acts of song and dance, simply because we felt like it – no matter where we were. We ran, arms wide, into the great big world. It was ours to explore on nimble legs and feet with young eyes that hadn’t seen it all – or anything, really.
Oh, we would pout at the drop of a hat if we didn’t get our way. Some of us would lie down on the floor and wail and punch the ground with tiny fists. “That’s not fair!” we’d yell, full of righteous indignation. Mothers and fathers would point out, in the voice reserved for telling children the truth about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, “Life’s not fair.” To this day, no one’s given me a good answer to the incessant question, “WHY?” We were, unfortunately, quick to plant our little feet wide, hands on hips, bodies pitched aggressively forwards, yelling, “I hate you!”
Fortunately, most of us learned that “hate” was really too vile a word for what we really felt. “Hate” was a poison arrow to the heart – and that one hate dart fired outward left another inside, festering.
We used words like “happy,” and “sad,” and “mad.” Children don’t often say, “I don’t know what this emotion is that I’m feeling.” They just feel it; they don’t agonize to define it over ten pages of prose. Have you ever noticed how simple emotions can be expressed in simple, one-syllable words that a first-grader can spell? These are the emotions of an eight-color crayon box. Sometimes, eight colors are enough.
When did we learn to hide them or rein them in so tightly we couldn’t acknowledge having “feelings” at all? What adult admits out loud, “My feelings were hurt when you…” No. We have no feelings to be hurt, dammit. You might get on our last nerve, but we can only be “hurt” physically. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Stuff the feelings down, medicate them, avoid them – don’t have them. Don’t admit to them, anyway. That would make us…vulnerable.
When did the open, 1000-watt smile turn into a perfunctory, guarded hello – or worse, yet, when did we learn to avert our eyes and pretend not to see the other person coming, lest they think our smile was weird or inappropriate, or, God forbid, they didn’t see fit to return it? When did we learn to control our emotions so well no one would know we had any feelings to hurt?
I’ve spent much of the past year making a point of smiling wholeheartedly at strangers. So what if they think I’m weird? I’ll probably never see them again, I’d say to myself. Well, “You’re weird” wasn’t the vibe I got back. The reactions ran the gamut: nervousness (“What am I supposed to do, now?”), avoidance of eye contact, slight hostility – sure, there were some of those. But mostly: something I can only describe as “relief” or “acknowledgement,” and a sometimes-surprised, open, childlike smile in return. I guess what they saw, in my willingness to be vulnerable and smile first, was acceptance. I didn’t know them – but they were enough, and worthy of a real smile – not one of those little canned, perfunctory pleasantries, mind you – a smile that’s got the backing of your whole heart, and nothing less will do.
I think Brené Brown says it best – and with a big bonus for everyone whose New Year’s Resolutions included “lose weight”:
If the last few years have been focused on the “gratitude” component, could we focus this year on wholeheartedness and vulnerability?
Something else. Some of this boils down to “cultural norms.” When I was sixteen, my grandmother and I ventured to Mexico, where our tour guide promptly asked me to stop smiling at everyone. He said that the women didn’t like it and the men took it as an invitation. It was a hard habit to resist, and I’m glad I didn’t break it. Children have no such “cultural norms” to make them feel shamed or defensive, to add layers of complexity and nuance to their simple joy in living, and they are happier for it. Why do we break them, and ourselves, of that simplicity? Brown refers to vulnerability as necessary for “connectedness,” and in a world where the most technologically connected people are also some of the most isolated, this is important.
You do you. Get back in touch with your stifled self, your unbridled and innocent eight-color emotions. Be wholehearted. You are enough.
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