I really don’t like having to put on a mask when I go to the store. It makes my face sweat and fog up my glasses (if I chose to wear them). I have yet to find one that fits comfortably, that doesn’t make my ears flare out. But those are minor nuisances. The main reason I don’t like masks is that they’ve erased smiles from every encounter. They’re hidden behind a strip of cloth. All of us doing this has caused an outbreak of what I’m calling Smile Deficit Syndrome. And it’s not good. The world needs smiles now more than ever.
There’s a young lady who works at the local Safeway named Nancy. I liked her from the start because she has this cool Southern accent—because she’s from South Carolina. And she liked my wearing a Clemson baseball cap—again, because she’s from South Carolina. We’ve been exchanging smiles and saying “Hi” to each other for years. A while back she was in the bridal party of a wedding I was officiating. “I didn’t know you knew so-and-so,” I said to her. “How could you?” she replied. “I didn’t know you were a pastor.” And before I could echo a semi-embarrassed “How could you?” of my own, she added, “I just thought you were a friendly guy.” [Her accent made it sound gracious, like she knew the two were not mutually exclusive.]
Anyway, a week or so ago, Nancy was working the 12 items or less self-checkout area, and she looked like she was not having a good day. I said, “Hi Nancy,” but got only a half-hearted “Hi” back. That’s when I realized she was suffering from Smile Deficit Syndrome. “Hey Nancy,” I said, “You can’t tell, but there’s a big smile going on under-neath this mask.” That made her smile—at least I think it did. She was also wearing a mask; but her eyes twinkled a bit.
This ‘new normal’ is taking a toll on us. All the distancing, quarantining, and stay-at-homing we’re doing these days is like wearing a mask. I may not like it, but I’ll wear one in solidarity with people like Nancy. If they have to wear one for an 8-hour shift, I can put up with it for my brief period of shopping. Still, it can be a real challenge con-veying a smile beneath the mask (granted, sometimes even smiling itself can be a challenge!). Which means finding some way—a wink, a gesture, an action, or maybe just coming right out and verbalizing it like I did with Nancy—to unmask my smile.
How can we best express ourselves to be a blessing, to the world and ourselves? I wish I had an answer…other than smile more, in as many different ways as possible. If we can’t remove our masks, then let’s find some other way to show it. That’s the cure which will eradicate Smile Deficit Syndrome.
Since I drafted this article the recent outrage, the protests and riots, following the death of George Floyd, have exposed a deficit even greater than unseen smiles: empathy toward the Black community. I have never been a racist, and I deplore the reality that being a person of color in our nation makes such a difference in how you are treated—and not just by those in law enforcement…even the Coronavirus unfairly affects them! My heart aches for those victimized. I’m outraged. I want to do some-thing about it. But I’ll probably not march anywhere, and I definitely won’t set fire to anything. I feel helpless. And the metaphor I use above shifts in an unsettling way. My desire to show support, if that’s all it is, is just me smiling behind a mask of white privilege. I know how I feel, but no one else does; and, being hidden, it doesn’t make a bit of difference. James writes, “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” He explains that’s like seeing your image in a mirror, walking away, and forgetting what you look like. Now, I’m not quite sure what this “being a doer” might require in today’s climate, but to be true to myself I need to make every effort to unmask my smile (meaning revealing my support, my solidarity) to those who are simply struggling to breathe