In my own write: The power of a smile

The contact engendered by even a fleeting smile has surprising human warmth and strength.

Smile 370 (photo credit: MCT)
Smile 370
(photo credit: MCT)
Having spent most of my working life in journalism, I can’t imagine beginning my day without a newspaper. It’s as much a part of my morning ritual as a cup of tea and a slice of toast.
I can, however, understand why people I talk to here in Israel increasingly make a point of not reading a paper, whether in print or electronic form. It’s just too depressing, they say – with more than a little justification.
The news is unremittingly bleak, with violence, callousness and corruption at home, and unspeakable dangers threatening from outside. And the worst thing is that there’s not much the average person can do about any of it.
We ourselves may drive carefully – but will our care and consideration make the next hit-and-run driver slow down and think? We may operate within the law, but will that prevent the next Holyland scandal? As for the threats looming from elsewhere in the region, the most we ordinary citizens can do is pray – which might not be a bad idea, come to think of it, especially at this portentous time of year.
We might be powerless on the giant canvas of world affairs, but within the smaller orbit of our own lives we can have great influence, and with surprisingly little effort.
A BRITISH friend who visited recently for a family wedding and stayed with us attended a local Orthodox synagogue on Friday evening and Shabbat morning, and had this to say on his return: “I spent more than an hour in the shul last night, and several hours again this morning – and not a single person spoke to me.”
“What,” I responded, “not even to say Shabbat shalom? Not even the guy sitting next to you?” “Not a word,” he replied. “I was completely ignored.”
Now this friend is a quiet, unassuming sort of fellow, not the kind who expects a fanfare wherever he goes. But he was clearly surprised that his fellow worshipers, far from welcoming a stranger in their midst, hadn’t even acknowledged him.
I too was dumbfounded. I have seen reserve in the women’s section of an Orthodox shul, where most of the “action” – and therefore interaction – takes place in the men’s section; but I have always thought of this latter section as a sort of living organism whose many parts are in touch with each other and therefore sensitive to newcomers.
Indeed, many congregations worldwide will honor a Shabbat morning visitor by offering him an aliya to the Torah.
While there clearly was no deliberate shunning of my friend during the Shabbat services he attended, the worshipers sitting around him obviously found it easier and more natural to greet those people they already knew, and with whom they already had a relationship, than to make the effort to relate to someone new.
It’s a human and understandable tendency to keep social interaction within our own familiar circle – but this inclination is perhaps what prompted the sage Shammai to write in the compilation of wisdom called Ethics of the Fathers: “Greet every human being with a cheerful and pleasant countenance” (1:15); and, later, in the same collection, Rabbi Yishmael to enjoin: “Receive every human being with gladness” (3:16).
NOW THE seemingly small gesture that is a welcoming smile will likely not – to pick up the opening lament of this column – prevent the next act of random violence; nor will it deter the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it can have quite impressive human repercussions.
The contact engendered by even a fleeting smile has surprising human warmth and strength. It can put heart into someone who is lonely or troubled, and do wonders for a worried patient in hospital – which makes me think there should be smiling seminars held for student doctors who are so overwhelmed by the critical nuts and bolts of their profession that they forget there is a person at the receiving end of it.
The value of medical clowns who work in hospitals to cheer the patients has also been proven.And who knows how often a cheerful smile has put new heart into someone contemplating a desperate act? “When I have a problem that is really getting me down,” a friend confided, “I look in the mirror, smile at myself, and say: ‘This [cheerfully] is the way I want to live my life.’ And it works.”
THE SIMPLE action of smiling at a stranger has a very different power from that of greeting a friend or someone we already know. It is a reaching out, a sympathetic statement of shared humanity, an instant, unspoken understanding of the ups and downs of life.
The “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” Reb Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), would make a point of greeting the street cleaners he passed early in the morning on his way to synagogue. He understood their thankless, low-paid, repetitive job and expressed his appreciation of its value.
The disciples of another 20th-century sage, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, noticed the warm smile on his face even when he spoke on the telephone.
Someone asked him why he bothered since the other person couldn’t see his smile. “He can hear it,” the rabbi responded.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), who lived in Jerusalem, once asked a young man who had opted to explore his religious heritage: “What led you to begin studying Torah?” The man replied that he had grown up in a secular neighborhood in Israel, and whenever he went to school each morning, the only person on the street who daily greeted him was an elderly man who wore the garb of an Orthodox Jew. Years later, when he began to search for more meaning in his life, the memory of the religious man who had greeted him so warmly every morning inspired him to enter a yeshiva.
SMILING, IT appears, is not just an act of altruism, but very good for our health. Apart from making us seem more attractive and confident, lifting our faces and making us look younger, it can positively change our mood, relieve stress and boost our immune systems.
Not only that: Experts say that smiling helps lower blood pressure and releases endorphins, natural pain killers and serotonin, all of which together make us feel good.
There’s also something the experts call “emotional contagion,” conveyed in the lines of a well-known song: “When you’re smilin’ when you’re smilin’ / The whole world smiles with you / And when you’re laughin’ oh when you’re laughin’ / The sun comes shinin’ through...
“But when you’re cryin’ you bring on the rain / So stop your sighin’ be happy again / Keep on smilin’ / Cause when you’re smilin’ / The whole world smiles with you.”
I CANNOT conceive of a lovelier tribute to the smile than this one, which I discovered on the site for Jewish Self Help and Growth: “It costs nothing, but creates much. It enriches those who receive, without impoverishing those who give. It happens in a flash and the memory of it lasts forever.
“None are so rich they can get along without it, and none so poor but are richer for its benefits. It creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in a business, and is the countersign of friends.
“It is rest to the weary, daylight to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad, and nature’s best antidote for trouble. Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed or stolen, for it is something that is no earthly good to anybody till it is given away! “If someone is too tired to give you a smile, leave one of yours. For nobody needs a smile so much as those who have none to give.”
IN THE spirit of the rabbi who smiled even when speaking on the phone, may I greet readers of my column with the wish of a cheerful year to come.
Shana tova.