Winter has set in here in Chicago. Oh well, this too shall pass. The kids were off from school today, so my morning exit was quiet and solitary. I drove along our alley, coming up behind on a slight female figure pushing a stroller. As I passed her, she looked up with a big smile and waved with an open, ungloved hand. She really seemed to look for eye contact with me, the unknown driver passing her. I had wished for the same, but had no expectations. In my pleasant surprise, I smiled back and nodded, one hand on the wheel, the other holding my coffee, which I raised in greeting. I had learned long ago that life in the big city is usually not this friendly. She pretty much made my morning.
I’ve been thinking about it all day. How many times a day do we contact strangers? How often does a person on the street look at you, make eye contact, and smile? Or say hello? How often do you do this? Does it not just brighten your day, even a little? How does it feel when you pass a dozen people and nobody acknowledges your existence? The most fascinating is when someone looks at me, makes eye contact, expresses nothing whatsoever, then looks away and keeps walking.
I used to be much more judgmental of these behaviors and people. I may have even taken it personally in early adulthood. But now I’ve lightened up a little. I don’t think it’s about me. But it makes me wonder about people—what is it that closes us off from strangers? Based on people’s expressions, I tell stories that they are worried, anxious, angry, distracted, rushing, arrogant, oblivious, or just mean. I make it about them. But this is neither productive nor healthy. It just makes me resentful and less likely to smile at the next person I meet.
Every one of us is one of these things I listed at some point—I think I experience each of those states at least once every day. I apologize in advance if you meet me in one of these moments. So now I try to tell myself that everybody has a unique story of getting through life and the world. This attitude shift has done two things for me. 1) It makes me appreciate smiling people that much more. I notice the twinkle in someone’s eye, the dimples, the cheekbones, the sterling white and/or crooked teeth. I appreciate these joyful strangers and let their joy sink into me. 2) It makes me more, rather than, less, likely to look for eye contact with others. If you’re not having a good day, maybe I can make it better by seeing you and smiling. I do this especially when I see moms with little kids or babies. I remember those days (so hard!) and how reassuring it was when strangers smiled and looked at us lovingly.
That woman really did make my day.
Crossing the street on my way to the parking garage after work today, a car turned left in front of me. The driver had not seen me crossing until the last second. When we made eye contact I could tell he was apologetic. He mouthed, “Sorry,” and raised his left hand in a humble wave. I smiled that I understood, no harm done. Further down the sidewalk a couple walked quickly in the cold, coming toward me. The very tall man marched in front, apparently focused on his destination behind me. His female companion came a couple steps behind. I smiled, and she smiled back—big! She had on a puffy black faux fur coat, a stylishly coordinated black fuzzy hat, nicely coifed hair jutting out from underneath, and neat, metal-framed eyeglasses that complemented her round, friendly face. I think she even said hello. My mood was definitely better for having passed them.
I’ve been in a great mood all day, maybe because of these strangers.
I think we profoundly underestimate the impact we all have on one another, positive and negative, in our smallest interactions. A genuine smile from a stranger on the street can really make your day better. When you smile at me, it makes me smile back at you, and vice versa, obviously—but the best thing about it is that we are both better off for it. That’s how joy works, I think—it doesn’t matter who starts it. It just grows wherever it is, and expands exponentially with each person who shares it.
So here’s to smiling people. You make me better. May I always smile back at you and keep the pageant of joy alive and well.