Mona Lisa

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

I was once involved with a person who would receive bad news with a sort of half-smile. It’s hard to put into words what that expression seemed to mean. There was a knowing, wistful quality to it, as if he understood that life cannot always be controlled but that he would go forth anyway and with heart. I never asked him about it; it seemed like his private inner secret.

I hadn’t thought about that half-smile for years until I went to Montreal the week before last and saw a lady I didn’t like the looks of checking in at the hotel. She looked mad and sour. If I were to translate the subconscious voice in the back of my head it would be saying something childish like, “I don’t like that mean lady.” But then she laughed at something the front desk person said and I could see what a normal, delightful person she was. It was just that her face had fallen into a mean look with age.

This reminds me uncomfortably of what my daughter says when she sees me reading: “Mom, why do you have to look so mad?” She doesn’t like it. I always defend myself by explaining my superior powers of concentration and what a serious person I am. She laughs at the absurdity with nary a wrinkle in her obliviously youthful face.

But there is a problem. The lady in Montreal brought to light a situation I think I already knew was in the works: I’m on my way to being her. In a recent recording of a Team’s meeting, I saw the truth of what I now look like when I’m just standing around being me. Young and old alike would be excused for thinking I was angry. However, the good news is that upon my return from Montreal the solution to my problem handily presented itself as I read (with frightening concentration) Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing Body and Spirit. It’s written by Sister Dang Nghiem, a doctor and Buddhist nun. As it happens, Sister D, as she is known, makes a practice of walking around with a half-smile on her face! It’s her inner secret for making everything easier, for preparing the way for joy, for accepting what cannot be controlled. Even a half-smile would have helped the lady in Montreal, and by golly it was going to help me, too.

It’s been an interesting experiment. When I half-smile I don’t look so mad, of course, but I also find it easier to review in my head the dumb stuff I’ve recently said. I’m not so despairing about how leggy my potted flowers have gotten. I wasn’t as upset with myself about the hefty serving of ice cream (and hot fudge) I doled out last night. I felt softer and more forgiving of the UPS person who left someone else’s packages on my porch which I’m now going to have to deal with. A half smile helps with an underlying sense that I’ve got to push, I’ve got to fight against something. And it gives me better access to my loving self. But maybe most of all, a half-smile brings me that much closer to noticing and appreciating how good I’ve got it on a minute-to-minute basis. After all, with a half-smile I’m essentially already halfway to joy. This makes me wonder what a half-smile would have done for me during a difficult, depressed stretch of time when I didn’t feel like doing anything at all because everything was such an effort.

If you happen to be reading this thinking the half-smile is just the flim-flam, woo-woo, mumbo-jumbo talk of the wellness obsessed, I will, with a half-smile playing upon my face, (mostly) forgive you. But just so you know, there are neuromuscular/neuropsychological mind-body reasons for why half-smiling works in our favor. On the simplest of levels, the mind thinks it’s happy if the face is smiling. Go ahead, feel it for yourself! When we smile, something in our head lifts. Things feel lighter. It’s kind of like a non-surgical face lift that prevents us from looking – or feeling – like we’re bitter about how life has turned out. It wouldn’t be delusion because, after all, there’s just as much beauty in the world to smile about as there is heartbreak to mourn. It’s all there.

Off we go into another brave, beautiful day,


P.S. I’m not saying making myself half smile – or remembering -- is easy. I’m just saying when I do it’s worth it.