Reclaiming Our Smiles

I realize how difficult it’s been for me to smile these days, with so much coming at us from so many different directions. So I thought I might share the story again of an old woman who helped me find my smile.

I met her while I was in India. She and her extended family lived on the sidewalk next to my hotel. I passed her each morning on my 5 a.m. walk when she invariably greeted me with a big, broad, affectionate smile.

I claimed the reason I walked so early was to avoid the morning traffic, but the truth was I was preparing for a mouthful of dental implants and I was horribly self-conscious of my smile. I was more hiding it than sharing it.

But something happened to me every time I passed this old woman. Her smile was so infectious that, for a moment, my vanity disappeared and I would smile back. This ritual took place each morning. I found it to be a real blessing, maybe even the highlight of my trip.

On my last day, after my implants were done and I was preparing to leave, I passed her one last time. When she saw that I had all my teeth she threw her hands in the air and gave me her biggest, best-est, toothless smile of all.

She seemed so delighted. 

I remember feeling humbled, maybe even a little ashamed. I had travelled 6,000 miles thinking I needed implants to get my smile back, when in truth all I needed was to have my spirit touched by an old, homeless, toothless Indian woman.

I had spent what would have been a fortune for that woman to purchase the smile she gave me for free.

Somehow, some way, it seemed this woman had been put in my life to teach me a different way to count my blessings. I couldn’t help but notice the smile on her face was not contingent on:

  • A roof over her head,
  • Shoes on her feet,
  • A kitchen in which to cook,
  • A refrigerator stocked with food, or
  • Teeth in her mouth.

I couldn’t help but confront the sheer luck of the draw on the hand I’d been dealt. My life was choc-o-bloc full of inherited advantages. It wasn’t that I was born on third base; it was that I never had to leave home. I had it made from the get-go just by being born to Jack and Theresa Moriarty.

I suspect that’s true for most of you reading this post. Versions of the list that follows have been published widely, without clear attribution:

If you have food, have clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of this world. 

If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy. 

if you get this on your own computer, you are part of the 1% in the world who has that opportunity. 

If you woke up this morning with more health than illness you are ahead of many who will not even survive this day. 

If you have never experienced the fear in battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation you are ahead of 700 million people in the world. 

If you can attend a religious service without the fear of harassment, arrest, torture or death you are envied by more than three billion people in the world. 

If your parents are still alive and still married you are a member of a minority community.

If you can hold your head up and smile, you are not the norm, you’re unique to all those in doubt and despair.

These are just facts, not meant to shame you. They’re simply objective observations on the way things are in this world. 

There are many lessons I could draw from this old woman but perhaps the most salient is this: I should not search outside for my happiness, but within. For only when I own my happiness can I share it, and only in sharing will I ever keep it. My fancy new teeth might help me bite into an apple, but my smile can be accomplished with or without them.

And the truth is, that’s pretty much how it goes for everything else I’m seeking in life . 

Just a thought…


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