Commentary / Coronavirus

Rediscovering the Smile

smileThis virus has us distracted. With daily state-by-state counts of cases, deaths, masks, gloves, ventilators and respirators, press conferences, hot-spot alerts, investigative committees and blame games, we are tired. That said, maybe some goodness is blooming. Maybe we are, by accident, rediscovering the smile.

Is this virus, by odd chance, raising the value of neighbors to each other? Could it be reminding us – even as we Skype, Zoom and meet virtually – how much we appreciate human contact?

True, we are learning big medical, commercial and legal lessons, rediscovering federalism, watching our Constitution tested, listening as timbers creak in a storm. All that is good, even heartening. Our Founders, after all, wrestled smallpox during the Revolution.

We are learning how to reconstruct the social order online, working, playing, teaching and learning.
We are proving – once again – that Americans are resilient, even when restive.

Collectively, we are demonstrating that America is intrepid, determined, resourceful, creative, and hard to keep down – even in extremes. We are managing this crisis, perhaps not beautifully but admirably and adequately.
Still, we are tired – which brings me to the opening observation. Much as I hate this curse, social distancing may be restoring appreciation for simpler things, like smiling.

Have you noticed what is happening? We venture out to collect supplies and our wits, then return to our cave. Yet on these forays, brief as they are, something is happening. We walk the dog, get toilet paper or coffee, celebrate flowers of spring – and we see a neighbor.

In that neighbor, we recognize a fellow passenger on this crazy train, same side rail. We want to commiserate and reassure. But that is hard.

The problem, of course, is social distancing. It keeps people apart, eclipsing conversations over the back fence and on sidewalks. Forced distancing amputates connection, affection, and human bonds.

Still, one reflex remains healthy – unnumbed, unchanged in crisis, more on display than ever. Despite the national doom and gloom, cross talk, and news overload, smiles are resurfacing.

Here is the point: Smiles are a big thing. A smile contains the power to lift and reassure. One smile can convey more than words, delivering uncommon solace to a neighbor in this worried hour. That we are smiling at one another says a lot about America’s character.

As we go out – on those limited walks, necessary runs, trips to store and back – we are reassuring each other. In short, we have a restorative tool – and are using it.

You wonder, of course, if I am wrong about the smile. Hard to find any authority on the matter, except poets. So, here are a few.

Wilbur Nesbit, celebrated by Major Bowes, friend of Theodore Roosevelt, put it this way: “The thing that goes the farthest toward making life worthwhile, that costs the least and does the most, is just a pleasant smile.”

Take Edwin Markham: “There is a destiny that makes us brothers/ none goes his way alone/ all that we send into the lives of others, comes back into our own.” There’s a pitch for smiling.

Or Douglas Malloch: “The hills ahead look hard and steep and high, and often we behold them with a sigh; but as we near them, level grows the road, we find on every slope, with every load, the climb is not so steep, the top so far, the hills ahead look harder than they are.” So, smile.

In a humorless time, smiles travel. They can multiply. Maybe that is why more are popping. Maybe smiles cross the divide created by social distancing.

Maybe Robert Browning had it right. In darkness there always remains some light. From Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, he still delivers smiles. “The year’s at the spring and day’s at the morn/ morning’s at seven and hillside dew-pearled/ the lark’s on the wing, snail’s on the thorn/ God’s in his heaven – And all’s right with the world.” Just one smile can sometimes make it so.

Human contact may be on hold, but smiles need not be. We can surrender to circumstance or turn the tables, making this predicament what we wish. We can smile at neighbors, put away the pout, wring the worry out. Looking around, it seems – we are rediscovering the smile.

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