Smile. Just smile. You repeat this over and over in your head until you cant remember which muscles you need to activate in order to actually smile. There’s a saying about how it takes more muscles to frown, right? So, why not smile? Well, for starters it can be hard for a number of reasons: frustration at work, disturbance in the personal realm, or it just might be a very busy day.
Let me tell you a story. It starts with my parents, as oh so many of my stories do. Both of them are deaf. Advances in technology (i.e. texting, Skype, online messengers) have really increased the ease in which I am able to communicate with my parents. I like to think they have always been those edgy parents who have always known how to text, use abbreviated lingo, and of course emojis. For my father, who is one of the most loving, outgoing, and extroverted people I know, one might think digital communication or a lack of verbal language would hinder or limit his ability to express his love for others. I believe it has actually done the opposite. My father possesses the ability to make anyone feel welcome, loved, or listened to in a heartbeat. Deaf or hearing. His smile, his laugh, these are all signatures of who he is.
This ability to just smile at anyone is a trait I have always admired in my father and something I have tried to emulate in my life. I do this because I know that I never really know what someone else might be experiencing that day.
For the past three years my family has been engaged in a high conflict divorce. My mother has been entrenched in a legal battle to divorce my ex-stepfather. It is taking longer to get through this divorce than it did for me to obtain my master’s degree. This divorce has opened up a lot of secrets we (my mom, brother and myself) kept through their decade-long marriage: secrets of emotional & physical abuse, unhappiness and deceit. If you ask almost anyone who knew me through high school or college, they would have no idea the severity of what my family was experiencing every day. Moving through graduate school, most people did not know the battle my family was facing in the courtroom. I moved through my days trying not to think about it, looking for silver linings or ways to improve or ignore what was going on. In high school I was motivated by moving away to college. In college I was away. There were still hard days, and it was hard to talk about.
On any given day there are emails exchanged between my grandparents, aunt, mom’s best friend, mom and myself about what is going on (thank goodness for reply all). The topics range from anything from a recent custody negotiation to degrading and threatening emails from my ex-stepfather to the next vacation my grandparents are going on. I am pretty used to this now. I am used to seeing the emails, the messages from lawyers and the financial statements. I am used to anticipating a court decision to see it be postponed (we can talk about the failures of the family court system another day), seeing signs of a positive end and being highly disappointed. Ultimately, what I am trying to say is it is a roller coaster of emotions, and I do my best to process it all. I haven’t mastered it. I have talked to counselors. I talk to friends, my partner, and my family, but at the end of the day, sometimes it is still hard to work through. It is something that is still hard to talk about. There are days where this weight feels unbearable and any added unnecessary stress or unkindness from someone can feel like the final blow. On the other side of that proverbial coin on those difficult days when I encounter a smile from someone, even just a sliver of a smile from someone walking between buildings, that moment, that smile can be life-sustaining.
This is why I try to always smile.
I, just like them, do not know what battles they’re fighting. It can be hard to know what load one another is carrying every day. We owe each other kindness. The world we live in can be harsh, our jobs stressful, and our coworkers and students may be dealing with things that are weighing them down. When we decide to roll our eyes or treat others with disrespect we might be adding fuel to the fire, adding weight to an already heavy load. Our world can also be bright, our vocations rewarding, and we can offer a kind smile. Our campuses should be places of care and places of smiles. Mother Teresa said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing,” and I believe it is true. It can be hard some days to smile – I get that – but those days when it costs you nothing it could mean the world to someone else.
Smile. Just smile.
To read more about “Committed,” a series focusing on sharing stories and continuing the conversation about Mental Health in Student Affairs, check out this post. Follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #SAcommits. Thanks for reading and supporting your colleagues!