A man may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
– Shakespeare, Hamlet
Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.
-Mother Teresa, “The Joy of Loving
A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life into a despondent soul.
– Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
The notion of paying someone to smile at us is absurd. Smiles exist, not in the realm of justice, but in that of graciousness.
And every genuine smile expresses an outward-turning which, exactly in so far as it forgets oneself, is at the same moment an acceptance of oneself.
This acceptance of oneself is integral. Even if we feel thoroughly dissatisfied with ourselves – with our appearance, our character, our luck, our health, our mistakes, our past – whenever we smile we relax just a little out of that self-rejecting mood, we affirm ourselves for a moment as someone who has a proper place in the universe, and whose small gesture therefore matters.
The forgetting of oneself is also integral. Of course, a smile can be shy, and to that extent self-conscious, but it conquers the self-consciousness.
And because of the accepting and the forgetting, it has an artless honesty. This is very clear in the grin on a baby’s face, the smirk on a boy’s, the beam on a young girl’s; and it is still there in the friendly grimace that shines through the gnarled record of a long life marked by ups and downs.
Even so, there are smiles which are deliberate. They are of at least three types.
One type is phoney. It is not a really a smile but a mask, designed to deceive and manipulate. If such false smiles become so common that we have to be constantly on our guard, they devalue the currency of true ones. Yet by their very existence, they also affirm the character of true smiles – for it is only by pretending to have that character that they can achieve their purpose. The parasite needs the thing it lives on.
The second type is not normally phoney, though occasionally it can be so. This is the smile extended as a sort of formality in the course of commercial and professional life: the nurse to the patient, the shop assistant to the customer, the business man to the opposite number he has made a deal with. For the most part, these smiles are genuine enough, for they acknowledge our common humanity and its general presumption of a certain basic good will.
The third type is very special. It does not affect a smile. But it does adopt one. To an extent it resembles the phoney type – but with an opposite purpose. It offers a welcome when welcome is difficult, or it attempts to encourage others when things are desperate.
All smiles in some measure express rejoicing, but these last ones do so in the face of loss or danger or pain. And though they are focussed on some present crisis, they also throw out ripples of courage and hope which touch the whole of life. They proclaim, very quietly, that there is something deeper than the present trouble, and somehow deeper than all trouble.
Therefore they echo what is not quite the first, but is perhaps the second of all biblical messages: that, in spite of all that is wrong in our experience and in the universe, reality is fundamentally good; and that evil, though brutally obvious in the world, does not belong, is not part of the first essence of things – and at last will pass.
This echoing of so fundamental a message is not conscious, except perhaps in some remote substratum of our minds. Nor is it present only in smiles of this third type. They are the ones in which it is clearest, but in all smiles the same deep optimism is present.
There are still other smiles which are genuine in the sense that they express real feelings, and even share this optimism, and yet are false because they are opposed to everything which optimism should rest on: smiles that gloat, or hurt; that exclude all except an in-group; that place a seal on the instinct of revenge; that express satisfaction at some unjust victory;
But these are the exception. Normal smiles foster hope and affirm meaning. This is somehow intrinsic to them.
And perhaps, then, every genuine smile is almost a prayer – even when it is the smile of an atheist.
Mike Kelly is a retired teacher of high-school mathematics. In 1969 He obtaitned a PhD from UNSW in the History and Philosophy of Science.