Amazing What a Smile Can Do
Sometimes it may be hard for a lung cancer patient to smile. Treatment takes a toll, both physically and emotionally. My mood has fluctuated from dark to darker on many occasions. There were times when chemotherapy left me so worn that I felt as though I was crumbling from the inside out, my nerves frayed to the point of exploding if only I could have mustered the strength to let them. There was disdain. There was despair. But there were also moments of light, bright inspiration, reminders of love and beauty and all the reasons that I wanted to live. Often, even in the dingiest of moods, that light could be sparked by something as simple as a smile.
An Opportunity for Connection
Smiles tell us lots of things. They are welcoming, accepting, friendly and warm. Smiles offer opportunities for connection when words might not be enough — or might even be too much. They can turn strangers into comrades, reminding us that, whatever our troubles, we are all in this experience together.
Eventually, perhaps as part of my personal therapy, I made it a point to smile as much as possible when I was out in the world. It had been driven home to me that, for many months, I had lost the smile from my own face. I had to work to get it back, to force the muscles to remember. But with practice, it started to come easy. First just a thin line and a subtle curve, then, at some point, teeth began to show and, I am pretty certain, it could even be seen in my eyes. Because I was committed. I meant it. And I wanted to share the light that had been there, brightening my earlier darkness.
I had not really been thinking about it all that much lately until I realized that I had formed a nonverbal relationship with the parking attendant at my hospital. Sure, we exchanged pleasantries through the glass, but it wasn’t until she included an unusual remark as she handed me my validated ticket that it struck me. I’ve only seen her five times, yet there is a shared affection that has developed, a mutual kindness existing only for the connection made through smiling.
A smile in isolation might mean many different things. But a smile to someone is an act of connection, a way of sharing something personal, of opening a doorway. Smiling impacts those around us in surprisingly direct ways.
The Power of a Smile
My own, quite unscientific studies have shown me time and again how easily the moods of others can be influenced by the introduction of a smile. As a cancer patient, I have received personal benefit from others smiling for me, expressing their happiness to be in my presence or sharing in the joy of an experience. And, in turn, I have offered my smile to my caregivers, bolstering them with my appreciation and love. I have laughed with my friends and found that the woes of my treatment slipped out of my consciousness for a time. Being around people I care for, making sure that I am present and expressive, has done more palliative good than most of the medical treatments at my disposal.
But it is those subtle moments, with virtual strangers or vague acquaintances, that remind me of a smile’s true power. Potentially volatile situations can be quickly diffused. Arguments stalled before they begin. Pathways opened wide. Friendships formed before either party even knows why. And the window shades suddenly rolled up, curtains flung aside, allowing the sunlight in.
We are here to participate in life, after all. And it turns out that one of the easiest ways to do that begins with a thin line that curves ever so slightly at the edges.