Disarm You with a Smile
I found myself in a very long line up at the post office the other day. Without my phone. So, you know, pretty much the worst thing imaginable. Instead of pretending to attend to very important business or burying my nose in the (mostly trivial) minutiae of other people’s lives in worlds far away, I was forced to lift my gaze and pay attention to the actual world right in front of me. It was unsettling and disorienting. I barely made it out alive.
What did I see in my forced sojourn into the real world? Well, I noticed a half-opened flat of that fizzy flavoured water that people inexplicably drink on the floor. That was weird. There was a disgruntled young couple behind me, grumbling about the lineup. There were two older men fumbling through a very awkward greeting, mostly because it wasn’t clear either knew who the other was due to the masks they were both wearing. There was an elderly woman painstakingly counting out enough nickels to pay for her stamp at the post office desk. There was a solitary clerk impatiently waiting for said nickels to be counted, casting more than a few anxious glances at the lengthening lineup.
I also noticed a girl. She worked for the post office. She looked like she was in her early twenties, although again, it’s hard to tell with the masks. Her job seemed to be to wheel boxes from the back where the boxes live to the front where the boxes find their owners. The boxes were piling up around the counter. The girl had to wheel these boxes through the long lineup to get to where she was going, which did not seem like a particularly pleasant task. She had a red face and was sweating profusely. She moved haltingly, and looked anxious and uncertain. She looked like she would rather be anywhere else in the world but wheeling boxes through a crowded pre-Christmas post office lineup in the middle of a pandemic.
Our eyes met as she went back for her third load of boxes. I smiled at her. I tried to pour all the warmth and kindness and solidarity I could muster into my smile. I wanted it to say, “You’re doing great!” and “Your job looks really miserable today” and “I’m sorry that this place is so crowded and that there are so few places for your boxes to go” and “Please don’t worry about us as you do your work” and “I wish I could move out of the way and stand somewhere less inconvenient for you.” I generally just wanted my smile to inject a bit of humanity into a day that looked a little short on it for her thus far.
But of course, I, too, was wearing a mask. And so, my smile probably communicated none of these things. My “smile” was likely a few extra creases around my eyes and an awkward squint. All she likely saw as she repeatedly slalomed through the post office line up with her cart and her boxes were a bunch of stoic eyes whose expressions hid behind impenetrable masks. And when we can’t read someone’s expression, we tend to fill in the blanks, often negatively. Oh no, they’re probably all mad at me. They’re impatient. Am I doing this wrong? What’s the mood here? Am I going to wheel over someone’s toes? Is someone going to have a meltdown? Every person in that lineup could have been projecting similar support to what my smile was attempting. But she wouldn’t have known this.
The title of this post comes from the first line of a 1993 song by The Smashing Pumpkins called “Disarm.” It’s a song that deals with much darker themes of abuse and coming of age in a toxic family system, but that first line expresses a fairly simple truth. Smiles do disarm. Whether it’s between shy kids on the playground or frazzled travellers on a plane or weary caregivers in the exhausted and exhausting spaces of health care or spouses trying to avoid getting on each other’s last nerve at the end of a long day or anxious young adults trying to negotiate uncertain social environments or the innumerable other contexts where we humans seem to need a bit of humanity to make our way. Often a smile can invite people to lower their weapons, let down their guard, dial back the suspicion and fear, extend grace. Of the many things that have been taken from us over these last twenty-one months of Covid, I am finding that sometimes it’s the simple things—things like a smile—that I miss most.
This isn’t some kind of an anti-mask rant or any kind of commentary on the politics and optics of this pandemic. Dear God, no. Like many, I’m frankly just so exhausted by Covid and all that it has changed in our world and in our lives, that I can hardly muster the energy to dive into the debates at this point. I can’t match the anxiety of the perpetually fearful and I can’t summon the wrath of the perpetually outraged.
But I do miss the smiles that our masks too often hide. I miss human faces and the humanity that these faces extend. I miss our ability to say with our faces what we’re too bashful or awkward or conflicted or uncertain to put into words. I miss the smiles that disarm.