Smile! (Even When You Don't Feel Like It)

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I don't always feel like smiling. Sometimes I'm sad, anxious, defeated, tired, annoyed, angry. I want to pull the covers over my head and hide for a while, stewing in darkness.

How about you?

Sometimes I cave to another's cruel words, a bad memory, traffic jams, rejection, cloudy days. I fall prey to sour moods wrought by any number of triggers that would easily set just about anyone racing off down a ranting path.

Sound familiar?

Several dozen glowing reviews about my books, artwork, and other projects can instantly be eclipsed by a frown, compliments of a single negative attack. Once after appearing on Fox & Friends to promote a new cookbook, someone cowering behind an anonymous username blasted me online: If I ever see [John] in person, I'll punch him in the face. (That was the nicest part of the message.) I mean, really? THAT over an on-air cooking demo?

When you put yourself in the public arena, those criticisms--of both the constructive and the purely malicious varieties--come with the territory. I know this and accept it, but still they cut to the bone. And today, in the spotlight of social media, we all are now in the public eye, and vulnerable.

All these things--ranging from the frivolous and petty to the serious--are a smile's natural predators.

However, each time I'm tempted to give in to the gravity of negative triggers--silly as they may sometimes be, and tap the frown-face emoticon, a story comes to mind. Several years ago while riding with my dad in his truck, I noticed him smiling and waving to every vehicle we passed. The other drivers always smiled and waved back.

"Who was that?" I asked each time he smiled and waved.

"I don't know," he'd reply.

"Then why are you smiling and waving at them?"

My dad--a humble butcher and gravedigger turned tombstone salesman--looked me in the eye and said, "The quickest way to make a friend is to smile at a stranger."

His words echoed Mother Teresa's own call to action: "A smile is the beginning of peace."

That story never fails to flip the light switch ON.

A SMILE: the curling of lips Heavenward. A simple motion--albeit sometimes bearing the weight of the world. A smile can be subtle and gentle, or powerful and potent. Even audacious and revolutionary.

When sincere, no other act so efficiently communicates happiness, amusement, satisfaction, friendship, love, comfort, compassion, and peace of mind. Or, our innate desire to move forward in some way. Studies confirm that smiling is good for our health. Laughter is the best medicine. A smile a day keeps negativity away. Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk in the light. (Psalm 89:15)

My smile is a gift to myself. On dire occasions, lifting the corners of my lips is equivalent to bench-pressing an elephant. To that point though, the more you workout those smiling muscles, the stronger they get. At the least, the effort always swings my mood from bad to better.

Here's a simple exercise: Count each of your blessings with a smile. I promise, those smiling muscles (and blessings) never wear out.

Our smile's impact on others is also significant. Even contagious. Even life changing.

Yes, sometimes I feel sad, anxious, defeated, tired, annoyed, and angry. I don't feel like smiling. This is part of being human. But when I step outside my front door, literally or via social media, I do my best to smile and mean it. To convey the best of this life, which I choose to embrace.

My smile is also then a gift to others. A "Welcome" sign, especially to those who might be submerged in the darkness of human frailty and chaos at a given moment.

It's so true that we never really know what goes on behind someone else's front door. Almost two decades on the board of our local domestic and sexual abuse shelter has taught me this. Years of travelling the country and meeting thousands of my neighbors has taught me this. For better and for worse.

Learning how to listen--really listen--to others has also opened my heart and mind to this: Folks coming up to me on the street, at the grocery store, and even in bars, asking, "Can I talk to you for a moment?" We step to the side, letting the world pass by, and I listen. A mother dealing with her son's drug addiction; a young man contemplating suicide; a woman seeking solace from a destructive partner; a homeless person craving a connection with another human being; someone questioning how and why to forgive.

In the beginning, I would wonder, Why me? What draws these people to me, to confide and seek comfort?

Then I understood. It's my smile.

Then I understood: Every one of our smiles--no matter who we are or where we are--can be a beacon heralding refuge, hope. Our smiles communicate where words fail. We minister through our smiles. The transition from frown to smile embodies Jesus's promise in John 16:20--your sorrow will be turned to joy.

Our smiles--yours and mine--can enlighten a moment and a heart. Our smiles can extend graciousness and, indeed, godliness. This can occur without us even knowing we have had an impact, or that we have left a happy little ripple behind us somewhere in the world.