Lately, I've been noticing the dearth of smiles in my landscape. I'm not just talking about my own "head down, walk with purpose" approach to getting from place to place. I'm talking about the "even when I try it, most people look away" awkwardness of attempting to smile at strangers.
I'm not into the "teeth together, lips in place" version of a smile. I'm talking about the real deal. The whole hog. A smile that speaks because it springs from the heart. For friends and family, the oomph happens without effort. But when it comes to someone I don't know, it's hard not to feel as though that smile is forced.
The other day, I found myself beaming at a baby. It was an 8- or 9-month-old whom I'd never seen before and whose name I didn't know. Yet the love I felt was uncontainable. And I smiled.
This got me thinking about what it takes to offer such a "you're treasured" look to adults I don't know. There's something about the innocence and purity that young children exude that naturally evokes a response. And I thought, Why should adults be in a different category?
It struck me in that moment that the way God, our Father-Mother, is seeing each of us isn't as young or old, black, white, or yellow, as flawed personalities or the sum total of some good traits and some bad ones. From reading the Bible and a book I think of as its companion, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy, I've come to know a God who sees us as none other than His beloved children, precious in His sight.
This God, Love itself, is always smiling at us. Always approving of and valuing us. We are, after all, His handiwork. His good pleasure. This is the true, spiritual nature of each of us that sparkles like a gem, even when not everyone sees it. But we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" the Bible says (Ps. 139:14), and I think we live to bear witness to that wonderfulness in ourselves and in others.
When it comes to smiling at strangers, then, it's really not about drawing on some high (or dry) reserve of love to conjure up that flash of warmth. It's about smiling because God, Love, is smiling over each one of us. It's about praying to see that I'm the reflection of that perfect Love, fully capable of reminding each individual I meet of one key thing: that Love loves them. Infinitely. Unreservedly. Always.
Why does all this matter? I think it has to do with knowing our connectedness to one another. Our significance as members of the same family. It has to do with recognizing that each one of us has inestimable worth. That each life is valuable and cherished - by God, and therefore, by us.
To me, smiling at strangers isn't just about adding light and lift to my days and to the days of others. It's about reaching beyond myself and my limited perspective to see heart-to-heart connections where I didn't think they could or would exist. This is brotherhood. This is the basis for peace.
"When we take up permanent residence in a life of love," the Bible says, "we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us" (I John 4:16, 17, Eugene Peterson, "The Message").
I want to live this kind of life - at home in Love, with love at home in me. Isn't it in this way that my existence will be about witnessing to that one, grand fact: that we live in a universe created and governed and 100 percent filled with Love? Where, in such a universe, could there be room for divisions? Where, in such Love, could there be one iota of hate?
Smiling - genuinely smiling - at strangers may seem like small potatoes in a world that so cries for healing. But through this tiny example of Love's love, something very significant can happen. It has to do with recognizing who we really are - innocent and pure, just like that little baby - and how that recognition unites us. It has to do with seeing ourselves as "joint-heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:17). God's children.
Yes, for this very reason I'll find it in my heart to smile at strangers. Because as I do, I'll see that I'm smiling at sisters and brothers instead.
Pilgrim on earth, thy home
is heaven; stranger,
thou art the guest of God.
Mary Baker Eddy
(Founder of Christian Science)