Warning: (somewhat) gushy holiday story ahead.
A few years ago, just a little before the holidays, I was stomping through a grocery store parking lot. It was chilly, and it was crowded, and I was in the festive, stressed-out state many of us find ourselves in this time of year. As I was heading into the store, another woman was heading out, and for a split second, we made eye contact. So I smiled. I do that sometimes, for no particular reason. I reckon my parents done raised me right.
The woman then stopped me and said thanks, leaving me a little blindsided. She said she’d been duking it out with grumbling holiday shoppers for hours, and was relieved to have someone show some sort of human warmth. She told me I’d made her day. I wished her well and we both went on our way.
Before I let this story dissolve into a Hallmark movie of the week, I’m going to tell you that when I look back on that brief, positive encounter with another human being, I don’t feel all warm and squishy inside. I don’t feel like I make the world a better place, one smile at a time (ugh, hurts to even think stuff like that). To be honest, I’m a little disappointed and dismayed that a smile was all it took to make her day. People around her were acting so crappily that me turning up the corners of my mouth for a few seconds was the highlight of her afternoon. It’s not life-affirming, it’s just an indication that we’ve set the bar pretty low for our fellow human beings.
Have we really reached the point as a species that we hold a smile as a gold standard of kindness? Are we really so divorced from one another that anyone who acknowledges our existence in a polite way is seen as doing us a favour? Forgive me, but I don’t think we should be settling for smiles.
Humans, I am holding you to a higher standard. I expect you to stop honking at each other in traffic, and cutting in line at the drive-thru. I expect you to get over this fascination with dumping all over one another online. I expect you to stop uttering phrases like “those people.” I expect you to share what you have, be honest, be sensitive, to listen to what someone else is saying and to try and be reasonable. There will be no more marks for participation in the world. Your perfect attendance counts for nothing. You’re going to have to produce some decent work once in a while.
Okay, yes, keep smiling at other people. Smile at cute babies in strollers. Smile at old men playing chess in the park. Smile at joggers racing past you, and the lady who delivers the mail, and complete strangers who walk past you on the street. It’s all good. It’s just not enough anymore. Not even during the holiday season.