Recently I was listening to a woman I don’t know very well talk about how she’s learning to smile. When she was a kid, she said, her father had always yelled at her when he caught her smiling. “What the hell are you grinning about?” he’d sneer. “You better wipe that smirk off your face before I do it for you.” So she’d grown up shunting all her emotional responses to life, whether positive or negative, underground.
“I don’t want to do that anymore,” she said.
I have often felt impatient around this woman. I don’t see her that much, but when I do a steady stream of judgments about her starts right up in my mind. She’s stiff. She’s awkward. She’s apologetic. She’s weak. And I am different, is the not-so-subtle subtext. I am not like her.
But listening to her talk about how she’s learning to smile pierced all that illusion. Thank God, I thought, thank God that now I can relax yet another place of stiffness, of pride.
When she showed this true and raw part of herself I felt those lost smiles, that spontaneous joy that had been locked away for years. My judgments had made her blurry, but when she shared she came into focus — not because our pain is the same but because I could see her for herself, another woman trying, as Mary Oliver says, to let the “soft animal of [her] body love what it loves.”
I found myself smiling, and I didn’t try to hide it.