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The Semantics of a Smile

Have you ever smiled for a whole week? No, me neither, but I have been trying. This is officially the end of week 1 of the Grateful Smile Project and although I have no scientific data for you, it feels like a success. I have felt happier overall and it has been interesting to see the synchronicity with which related themes have popped into my life. I feel a little like the Universe is giving me a gentle nod, and so I plunge forward a smile more or less affixed to my face.

My challenge to myself has been to take a minute to feel grateful and smile whenever I notice that I’m feeling anxious, irritated, or overwhelmed. The reality I’ve found is that accessing those grateful feelings in the midst of turmoil is really hard. I will feel stress building and then start to think really helpful thoughts like, “Be grateful, damn you!”

When (shockingly) the self-berating technique doesn’t work, I move instead to smiling. I’m not sure if it makes sense, but I stick a smile on my face to the best of my abilities and breath into how it feels. The smile and the breathing work well together. I feel like they clear a little space for gratitude to start to trickle in. It’s not fast or a hundred percent effective, but it’s a start.

I’ve been smiling more, but was still feeling like I was missing something, when one of my coursemates commented that he doesn’t connect to the word happiness, that he’s more looking for peace and contentment. I tried to tell myself that it was only a matter of semantics, but that wasn’t quite true. Happiness is maybe not exactly what I’m looking for, when I smile and am grateful it feels better, but I don’t know if it always feels happy.

As I was contemplating peace, contentment and happiness, the synchronicity of my week added in a couple more words for me to ponder. Vulnerability. Surrender.

Do those two words make you cringe? They make me cringe a little. When I think peace and contentment, there’s no question that it’s what I want. When I think of vulnerability and surrender, there are no warm fuzzies. There’s instead a kind of chasm of fear that opens up and whispers subtle disparaging comments. Vulnerability and surrender are synonyms for weakness. They are the words for the vanquished and the conquered. Aren’t they?

Brene Brown would definitely disagree. Up until this week, I knew Brene Brown only as a name, but I had never actually seen or read anything that she’d done. When my wife asked me to watch this Call to Courage thing on Netflix with her, I didn’t realize that I would have to

make room in my brain for some very profound ideas.

Here are a few quotes from Brene that I am trying to absorb into the fabric of my life.

“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

“Choose discomfort over resentment.”

“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable, it means showing up to be seen.”

Right? On some level I think we know all of these things, but they’re hard and uncomfortable and so we choose short-term comfort for long term pain. Most of us know somewhere in our heads (and even more in the pit of our stomachs) that it’s really hard to be vulnerable and that it takes great courage. This idea of confusing vulnerability with weakness is just a way of making ourselves feel better when we tuck our conscience between our legs and run away.

We need to change this message in ourselves and in the society we live in because it’s having disastrous consequences. Violence has become the norm and accountability is at an all time low (three mass shootings in the states, in Toronto there were 14 different incidents of gun violence over the August long weekend). Where instead of being able to face and share our feelings, we hide them, stuff them down and then find a scapegoat for the pain we are building. Vulnerability is so hard, but if we could all share a little more, wouldn’t we all hurt a little less?

When I watched my sister’s documentary A Short Essay About Men this week, I was amazed at how it resonated with the same messages as Brene Brown’s talk but in completely different packaging. Here were men sharing their paths from despair to vulnerability. It’s easy to forget to have empathy for the plight of men, it’s time to see a change away from patriarchy and there isn’t a lot of collective patience left for the transformations that need to occur. We expect men to figure out how to be caring, nurturing souls, but we forget to teach them how this fits with the idea of manhood that our society is still holding on to (and if you think ideas of manhood have evolved, then write manhood into your browser and look at all of the images that appear). We all need room to be able to learn the lessons of vulnerability, for ourselves and the health of our society.

Next came surrender.

While I was taking in all of these ideas about vulnerability and what it really means, another coursemate recommended the book The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer. On page two, I was already basking in my aha moment. “No wonder there’s so much tension, anxiety and fear.” Singer writes, “Each of us actually believes that things should be the way we want them, instead of being the natural result of all of the forces of creation.”

I don’t know if this resonates as loudly outside of the context of the page it was written on, but I actually laughed in relief when I read his words. It wasn’t just the “Let it go,” that I often say to myself (with varying levels of success) when I’m watching my mind spin on something that’s an emotionally exhausting waste of time, it was permission not to fight anymore. Of course I couldn’t control everything that happens in the world, the world is more than 4.5 billion years older than me. It had things figured out long before I came along.

Don’t get me wrong, surrender doesn’t mean giving in. In a strange way, it’s the opposite. If my five year old is having a meltdown because he wants more cake, my usual reaction would be to get irritated with him and explain (or argue) why he can’t have the cake. Giving in would be to just give him the cake. Surrender might be to smile at him and tell him that I know he’d like more cake and that I know it can be hard when you want something that you can’t have, but here’s the tricky part, not get emotionally engaged. Not take his cake-wanting as a sign that I have raised an ungrateful child and that I must be a terrible parent and allow it to start a whole new story in my head. I surrender to the moment and let it pass.

Sounds easy, right? As easy as climbing Mount Everest in a bathing suit (but more intelligent and rewarding). This week, my Grateful Smile project will include a focus on vulnerability and surrender. What does that mean? Good question, maybe I’ll be able to tell you by next Tuesday. In the meantime keep smiling for yourself, you are worth it.

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