This is the newsletter article I published in our May 2010 newsletter at church. A good outlet for some of my recent concerns about the way folks are interacting with each in the world in general!
Cool to Be Cold?
I have to apologize that I might have a bit of an axe to grind in my article today—not with anyone here at church, that’s for sure, but with the world at large right now.
I’ve been noticing a lack of friendliness lately in the general public; when I’m out and about, I like to be friendly; I like to smile at others and I like to make small talk and have a sense of well-being from being around others.
However, I feel as though lately my smiles are falling on somber faces, my efforts at reaching out are being met with a sideways gaze, and there doesn’t seem to be much reciprocity in the world right now.
I don’t mean to suggest that people must placate me and make me feel better; perhaps I am being too sensitive in my dealings with others. But at the same time, I do believe that there seems to be a general trend of unfriendliness in the world right now.
Some people seem to think that it’s “cool to be cold;” that it’s more attractive to be sullen, to be serious, to refrain from smiling. It’s more stylish to be aloof, to be reserved, to withhold one’s affection and enthusiasm unless you’re sharing it with someone who you know deserves it, someone you know well.
Now, of course, you know this is coming from me, one who could be accused of at least quarterly preaching some sort of sermon with the general theme of “Be Kind to Your Waitress.” I do have a “thing” about kindness and courtesy and generosity.
But as I thought about this thread of coldness lately, I also was reminded of a story that I knew I’d read in Chicken Soup for the Soul a long time ago, and through the magic of the Internet, I was able to dig it up again. It has stuck with me, showing the benefit of a smile, even between soldiers whose countries were at war with each other.
I would love to use the influence I might have with our congregation to encourage you to be friendly, to be kind, to be courteous, especially to those you don’t know. Of course, our friends and loved ones expect it from us, but you never know when you could make someone’s day—someone who is in need of your kindness, your compassion, and perhaps, your smile.
Saint-Exupery was a fighter pilot who fought against the Nazis and was killed in action. Before World War II, he fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists. He wrote a fascinating story based on that experience entitled The Smile (Le Sourire). It is this story which I'd like to share with you now. It isn't clear whether or not he meant this to be autobiographical or fiction. I choose to believe it is the former.
He said that he was captured by the enemy and thrown into a jail cell. He was sure that from the contemptuous looks and rough treatment he received from his jailers he would be executed the next day. From here, I'll tell the story as I remember it in my own words:
"I was sure that I was to be killed. I became terribly nervous and distraught. I fumbled in my pockets to see if there were any cigarettes which had escaped their search. I found one and because of my shaking hands, I could barely get it to my lips. But I had no matches, they had taken those.
"I looked through the bars at my jailer. He did not make eye contact with me. After all, one does not make eye contact with a thing, a corpse. I called out to him 'Have you got a light, por favor?' He looked at me, shrugged and came over to light my cigarette.
"As he came close and lit the match, his eyes inadvertently locked with mine. At that moment, I smiled. I don't know why I did that. Perhaps it was nervousness, perhaps it was because, when you get very close, one to another, it is very hard not to smile. In any case, I smiled. In that instant, it was as though a spark jumped across the gap between our two hearts, our two human souls.
I know he didn't want to, but my smile leaped through the bars and generated a smile on his lips, too. He lit my cigarette but stayed near, looking at me directly in the eyes and continuing to smile.
"I kept smiling at him, now aware of him as a person and not just a jailer. And his looking at me seemed to have a new dimension, too. 'Do you have kids?' he asked.
"'Yes, here, here.' I took out my wallet and nervously fumbled for the pictures of my family. He, too, took out the pictures of his children and began to talk about his plans and hopes for them. My eyes filled with tears. I said that I feared that I'd never see my family again, never have the chance to see them grow up. Tears came to his eyes, too.
"Suddenly, without another word, he unlocked my cell and silently led me out. Out of the jail, quietly and by back routes, out of the town. There, at the edge of town, he released me. And without another word, he turned back toward the town.
"My life was saved by a smile."
Yes, the smile—the unaffected, unplanned, natural connection between people. I tell this story in my work because I'd like people to consider that underneath all the layers we construct to protect ourselves, our dignity, our titles, our degrees, our status and our need to be seen in certain ways—underneath all that, remains the authentic, essential self. I'm not afraid to call it the soul. I really believe that if that part of you and that part of me could recognize each other, we wouldn't be enemies. We couldn't have hate or envy or fear. I sadly conclude that all those other layers, which we so carefully construct through our lives, distance and insulate us from truly contacting others.
Saint-Exupery's story speaks of that magic moment when two souls recognize each other.
I've had just a few moments like that. Falling in love is one example. And looking at a baby. Why do we smile when we see a baby? Perhaps it's because we see someone without all the defensive layers, someone whose smile for us we know to be fully genuine and without guile. And that baby-soul inside us smiles wistfully in recognition.