Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Smile. You might change a life.

He is tall and slim. His white t-shirt is neatly tucked into faded jeans. His face is encompassed by a dark, well-trimmed beard. Weary blue eyes peer out from beneath bushy eyebrows. A scar lifts up from his right eye-brow like an exclamation mark. I wonder if it's from a knife.

I'm on the second floor of the shelter where I work, walking through the large open space of the Day Floor where clients can spend their time watching TV, playing cards, chatting, sleeping with their heads resting on their arms on tabletops. On a hot, sunny afternoon, over three-quarters of the 560 seats are full. It's safer inside. Not just physically.

The man approaches me hesitantly. "Excuse me. Can I ask you a question?" His voice is soft, there's an accent rounding the edge of each word.

I smile. "How can I help you?"

His lips part and his beard opens up to reveal a toothy grin. It's something many individuals who have lived on the street share -- missing teeth. "No. No. I just wanted to know, do you smile all the time?"

I laugh and smile again. "I have no reason not to smile." I reply.

"Do you wake up smiling?"

"Most definitely," I laugh. "Morning's my favourite time of day."

"But you smile here," his arm sweeps the room. His head turns up towards the ceiling. His gesture encompasses the entire building.

"Sometimes a smile is all I have to give," I reply.

He takes a step back. His right arm moves up. His hand lays flat against his chest. "Thank you. You warm my heart....." and he pounds his chest where his heart beats beneath the enclosure of his ribcage. "here."

I smile and say thank you. He turns and walks away as he calls back. "Your family must love you."

"Yes. They do." I reply.

Someone wrote, “There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.”

Working at a homeless shelter, I don't know the language of many of the clients who cross our threshold. I don't know their stories, their past, their journey to this place where life is not what they once upon a time dreamed it would be. I don't know what triggers them. What pains them. What inspires them.

All I sometimes have to give is my smile.

On the street, we pass men and women, teens, youth too young to imagine they are without a family, and we pretend they're not there. We lower our eyes. Turn to look the other way. Feign deep concentration on the last thought that popped into our minds. What was it? Oh right. Pick up the dry-cleaning.

Sometimes, we reach into our pocket, pull out a coin and drop it into a proffered hand or hat. Seldom do we look into the eyes of the one holding out their hand. Seldom do we offer them the one thing we can give that doesn't cost a dime. Our smile.

Several years ago I worked with street teens struggling to leave their high-risk lifestyles behind. We wrote a play together. I produced it. They were the actors. I brought in professionals to assist in the production. A director. Set-designer. Stage manager. It was an empowering experience for each of these teens who struggled to find a way to express their pain, their sorrow, their anger. Our purpose was to reach into the hearts and minds of the audience, to build bridges of understanding from street life to main street.

When I began the process of writing the play, I met with the teens to talk about the idea. "I'm here because I want to understand. I want to make a difference," I said. "Why are you here?"

Of the fifteen or so gathered in the room, each one said basically the same thing. "We want to warn other kids to not come down to the street. To find a way to work it out at home, or where ever they are. Don't come down here. Down here you're invisible. Nobody sees you. Nobody acknowledges your existence. Nobody looks at you as they walk past, their eyes dart anywhere but at you. Nobody smiles."

Canadian Blood Services has a slogan, "Blood. It's in you to give."

When I give blood, I change a life. For a few moments after donating, my body works to replace that which was given.

Not so with a smile.

Smile. It's yours to give. Free.

Today, as you work through your day, think about your smile. Do you hold it in. Hide it behind tightly compressed lips. Do you dole it out in sparse amounts, letting it peak out from behind your lips for a quick moment, here and there? Smile by hit and run? Do you walk around with a silly grin plastered on your face, shielding you from having to look someone in the eye? To experience, if only for a moment, the whole face, the entire countenance of another human being.

Today, as you walk around, let your smile be the bridge of understanding between your heart and a strangers. Let your smile warm you. Let your smile warm another.

Anthony J. D'Angelo, (Founder of The Collegiate EmPowerment Company and creator of The Inspiration Book Series) wrote, “Smile, it is the key that fits the lock of everybody's heart.”

Unlock somebody's heart today. Smile. You might change a life.

Quotes courtesy of

No comments: