I love to smile.
Maybe that sounds odd, but it’s true. I love how much joy smiling brings me, how it seems to encourage the people around me, and how a simple smile can draw strangers together.
There’s nothing like a smile to communicate friendliness, kindness, welcome, and love.
Oftentimes, no words are needed. One smile can be the difference between a difficult day and a rewarding one.
I’ve been on the receiving end of those beautiful smiles more times than I could ever count – and I love having the chance to do that for others.
But I haven’t always felt that way.
For a long time, I looked at smiling as something that was reserved for times with families and friends. I had no problem smiling when I was genuinely happy, spending time with them and enjoying their company.
But smile at strangers? At people I didn’t really know, or acquaintances I didn’t really get along with? I hardly ever bothered. After all, a smile could lead to a conversation, and I’ve never been good making conversation with people I don’t know well. To smile was a scary thing, so I usually just avoided it.
Now, I look back and wish I’d acted differently. That I’d smiled, even if it meant a conversation. Since that time, God’s worked on my heart in many ways, and through many people and situations to show me the true value of a smile.
He used my brother to teach me a lot.
When I think of genuine smiles – smiles full of joy, invitation, love, and appreciation – I think of my brother. Being nonverbal due to Cerebral Palsy, my brother communicated through smiles more than anyone else I’ve known. His smiles were his way of saying ‘yes’, of showing others his affection for them, of encouraging them, and of communicating his joy.
Most of all, his smiles were a direct extension of Christ’s love.
My family has many stories of taking my brother places and seeing firsthand how a smile could change someone’s entire day. It didn’t matter whether they were young or old, sick or healthy, busy or lonely…my brother would smile at them – even across a store – and many people came over to tell us how much his smiles meant to them.
Often they were having a rough day and that simple gesture of kindness and acceptance brightened it. Some people confessed that for one reason or another, they rarely received smiles from strangers. Maybe they looked too intimidating to most people, or perhaps others – like me – just didn’t feel the need or desire to smile at people they didn’t know. Whatever the case, receiving a genuine smile meant a lot to those men and women.
I remember observing those exchanges with an odd mixture of pride for my brother’s kindness, and shame that I rarely ever acted the same. It bewildered me, that one smile could mean so much to someone. God’s blessed me with a large and loving family, and smiles aren’t a rarity with them. I never understood that some people don’t receive that blessing regularly. To some, smiles are few and far between – and viewed as treasure.
After my brother passed1, I began to realize just how valuable those smiles of his were. I missed – and still miss – them horribly. They were yet another thing I took for granted, and now I wish I’d cherished them just like those strangers did.
Especially as I grew older and began to spend more time with people other than family, smiles became more and more valuable to me. With each new experience – such as joining a local theatre group – I saw others that obviously preferred not to smile at strangers. People that seemed to feel the way I used to.
Only now I was a stranger too.
It’s remarkable how you can feel so lonely sometimes, even around lots of people. Through theatre, I found myself surrounded by people my age, who enjoyed similar hobbies, and who were working together with me to put on a show. But at first, I was still very lonely.
And I’m glad.
Through that loneliness, I learned to think of how others feel, how much a smile can truly mean, and how much friendliness is crucial to a person feeling welcome. I learned to appreciate each and every smile, wave, and gesture of kindness. To this day, I still remember exact moments when people smiled at me and therefore made me feel welcome. They may not have even thought about it, but their gestures meant so much to me.
While there were people that didn’t really ever smile at me, there were also people that went out of their way to make me feel welcome – giving me a genuine grin every time I saw them. I rarely knew how to express my gratitude, but if I could have found the words, I would gladly have done what those strangers did with my brother, thanking them sincerely.
Some have become dear friends, and some I only saw once – but all of them have brightened my life through their smiles.
One of the most beautiful things about smiles is that they’re universal. They’re not restricted to one culture, one language, one place, one type of person, or one time period. Smiles are never a sign of hatred, or of despair – but of joy, welcome, love, and kindness.
There’s no faster way to warm a person’s heart than by giving them a genuine smile.
I wish I could say I always smile genuinely at everyone. That I’m the type of person I wish would have welcomed me into those activities or groups. But unfortunately, I still don’t smile every time I should.
I’ve let many obviously hurting people make eye contact and walk right by, without offering at least a smile of encouragement or of love. I’ve purposely ducked my head and avoided even the opportunity to smile at someone I was uncomfortable around. I’ve kept myself from smiling at someone because I’m too scared, too busy, or just didn’t feel like making conversation if they came over.
And in doing so, I’ve kept myself from showing Christ’s love to others.
That thought grieves me horribly. I know how much it means to me when others smile – even if they don’t do anything else. A simple smile has made my entire day better countless times. How many people have I deprived of that blessing? How many times has God wanted me to show kindness to someone through a smile – and I’ve ignored his leadings?
I read once that smiles are a gift. They mean far more to the recipient than to the giver. Even if you don’t feel like smiling, you still should, because you never know just how much it can impact the person you’re offering kindness to. You could be the person that gives them the encouragement and confidence in themselves to get through the rest of the day. God will use even a simple smile to reach hearts and draw others closer to Him.
And it’s much the same with pictures. Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy having their picture taken, and look at it as a chore, a burden, or something to ‘get over with’. There’s no rule saying you have to enjoy having your picture taken (if there were, I’d have broken it!), but try looking at that opportunity as a gift to the person taking it.
Even if it’s not fun, even if you don’t feel it’s a real smile and therefore not worth it anyway, try your best and give as genuine a smile as you can. You may never know just how much that picture may mean to that person. Though it may seem morbid, the truth is that there’ll come a time when loved ones won’t be able to take pictures with us, or see our faces again on this earth. I don’t ever want to be the cause of more pain, if people look for reminders of me and don’t have any – or only have ones of me scowling, or looking bored or uncaring.
Does that mean we shouldn’t ever stop smiling? Can we never show our emotions when we’re grieving, anxious, depressed, or stressed? Is not smiling at every moment a sin?
Of course not. Just as they can be a blessing and an invitation, smiles can also be a mask when we should be vulnerable instead. Jesus Himself didn’t smile constantly. The Bible tells of Him experiencing extreme hunger, thirst, grief, fear, anger, betrayal, and agony. It’d be absurd to claim He smiled His way through those things. Sometimes vulnerability is needed more than a smile you don’t really feel like giving.
But from what I’ve learned, if the reasons you don’t want to smile at someone are because you don’t feel like it, you’re scared to initiate conversation, or you just don’t think it would be worth it to either of you – I encourage you to smile anyway. I promise, it will be worth it.
Maybe you’ll initiate conversation, and if so, then even though you may not feel prepared, God can still use your words to encourage and bless that person. Don’t be afraid of contact.
Maybe it will be nothing more than a smile as you both go your separate ways, and that’s a blessing too. You may never know just how much that gesture means to the other person.
And yes, even behind masks, smiles are still important. You might think it makes no difference because your mouth is covered, but a smile changes more than just the shape of your mouth. It changes your eyes, your cheeks, the way your mask moves, and your very attitude. Smiling has a wonderful way of making you feel friendly and compassionate, even with someone you’ve never met before.
Smiling is an outward expression of the love and kindness Jesus has placed in your heart. When you smile – even behind a mask – God will bless that gesture. I’ve seen it so many times, and it’s encouraged me to smile, even when I don’t feel like it. Often, even if I don’t feel like smiling and do it anyway, the very act works on my heart and helps me feel like smiling more.
Though I’m far from where I’d like to be, I’m striving to smile more and more, and to use those smiles to spread God’s love to everyone: strangers and family and everyone in between. Will you join me?
You never know how one smile could change someone’s life.
A cheerful look brings joy to the heart;
good news makes for good health.
(Proverbs 15:30 NLT)
1. I talked about my brother in my previous post, ‘What I’m Learning About Grief’.