Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Smiling Through Anything

If there is one thing about me that I don’t think people instinctively pick up on or see in me as much as I would like them to, it’s that I am a true optimist. I'm not na├»ve or unrealistic; no, indeed I am a realist, and let's not mince words; reality is often a rather grim affair. All the more reason, I say, to cultivate true and sincere optimism to see you through to the next day. The grim stuff in reality comes and goes in waves after all, and it’s all those bright moments of happiness in between the tidal waves of misery that we stick around and keep living for. In fact, I am so damn optimistic, that the very real masochist in me is sometimes capable of finding perverse pleasure in every tidal wave of misery that doesn’t manage to drown me completely, because it makes that calm, sunny eye of the storm all the more satisfying to savor. Plus, I get to look back at the storm that has passed over me and scream triumphantly at it like a half-insane Lieutenant Dan on the mast of Forrest Gump's fragile shrimping boat in the middle of a hurricane. Moments like that just don’t happen for sullen pessimists.

"How you like me now?!" and "You sure you want a piece of me?!" have also escaped my lips after weathering a particularly difficult life-storm, but I think God and the Universe just roll their eyes at me at this point.

But I don’t believe that you’d immediately recognize that truly positive little detail about me upon first glance, or from our first meeting, or even the second or third. It’s just that I don’t, you know, smile all that easily. Or at least, when I think I’m smiling, and the muscles in my face give off the sensation of what feels like a genuine smile, this is apparently what is actually happening:

I'd like to claim that I have some sort of disability or a muscular disorder that makes my facial expressions feel like they are appearing on my face in a certain way, when in fact, the exact opposite is manifesting itself upon my countenance, but I don't think that is the case. Somehow, somewhere along the path of my life, smiling became a very difficult thing for me to do, despite being a friendly, and honestly, rather nice person. Admittedly, I'm not the easiest person in the world, but "mean," "bitchy," and "rude" are not adjectives that commonly get attributed to me, even behind my back. (I think...) I am however, a not completely recovered shy and timid person. And trust me--being shy is the pits.

This last weekend, I was fired from a job for the first time in my life. The reason? I wasn't smiling enough. I was serving wine at a local winery that is earnestly attempting to recover from bad Yelp reviews and a previous ownership that didn't cultivate a loyal local following in an incredibly competitive industry, and despite being openly complimented for my superior service by my customers themselves, and being told that I didn't seem to be new at all because I seemed so comfortable and natural, I was let go in an email the next morning, after going home the night before and feeling really good about how things were going; talk about a rude awakening. To punctuate the whole unpleasant experience, the assessment of the degree of my smileyness was given by the most unsmiley manager imaginable. Imagine being told to smile and to project overt happiness, rainbows, glitter, and cutesy emojis by MTV's Daria. It just does not compute:

Actual portrait of my former manager

I have held down plenty of jobs since high school, most of them in customer service, or some other sort of position in which I regularly engage with the public, and I always excel. I have always favored being friendly but genuine over creeping people out with fake smiles and awkward attempts to pal around when the situation doesn't call for it, and people generally tend to warm up to that approach. If I were the cheerful, bubbly type, and that kind of behavior just flowed naturally from me, then sure, that would work too.

But it just isn't me, and being naturally shy, I have struggled with smiling outside of some natural trigger to make it happen all of my life--I smile when I am amused, or when I get a sudden tidbit of good news. I smile when I feel happy, but even then, the upturned lips are not plastered there eerily like The Joker. I have never wanted to be that person; you know, The Constant Smiler, because they have always been a disconcerting bunch to me. We all know the type, and we encounter them from time to time; perhaps like me, you always get the sense that behind the mask-like smile lurks a terrible, sinister monster of a human that is hiding a terrifying secret--like a freezer full of hacked up animal meat that is not of the commonly and socially acceptable to eat variety.

Just stop smiling, already! We all know you have someone locked in the basement, okay?

I can smile at work when speaking with strangers to show them that I won't bite. I can smile even when I'm dealing with something privately that's tearing me apart inside; I have to go to work and be an adult, after all. Still, I have been told to smile more, to cheer up, and asked "What's wrong?" ever since I was a quiet, introverted little kid. Having adults get in my face and tell me to cheer up and ask (as though I'm incapable of hearing) "What's wrong with her?! Why doesn't she smile more?" only jolted me and made me more self-conscious about the expressions coming to my face. To overcome my once almost crippling shyness, I was often given the conflicting advice to just be myself, and then to smile more than I naturally do, be more energetic, and exaggerate positive emotions, and then that elusive confidence often missing from most adolescent lives would magically just fall into place. And then? Well, then I guess everyone would love and accept me, or something.

But as I got older, as I grew up, I found some sort of comfortable balance between my naturally reserved "resting state," and the more animated, cheerful me that family, friends and loved ones get to see from time to time. But still, the occasional glimpse of a smile doesn't satisfy everyone, including the people who often sign my paychecks. To this day, well into adulthood, every time some well-meaning person suggests that I cheer up and smile, my heart sinks a little. I am happy. I am cheerful--not always, but who, outside of a manic state, is? Why is it so hard to see those emotions manifest from within me so much of the time?

I've always told myself, well they just don't understand me, that ominous collective known as They--They think they've got me figured out. They think I'm depressed, They pity me, They think that I'm too sad and miserable to be fun, easygoing, and tender, that I'm just all rough edges and harsh grit. An attractive man smiles at me! I grimace in return, suddenly stricken with self-consciousness over my smile. Does it look genuine? Does it look happy enough? Is it a pretty smile? Does it convey what I actually feel, which is yes, I too am confident, fun, able to laugh, able to let go? Will he actually see that, or does the mocking grimace convey the anxiety, the neurotic worry, the nervousness that comes with years of being told to make my face look differently than it looks? All this in a passing moment floods my thoughts, my emotions, my bloodstream, my fluttering chest, my pulse suddenly in my overly pink ears.

And just as our self-made fears and anxieties often create our own personal hells, those cozy, confining, familiar little cages where imaginary boogeymen wait at the unlocked doors, all of the confidence that I had, all the easygoing feeling I actually felt mere seconds before dissipates and gives way to the worry. A thought comes to me so suddenly and jarring, it's like it came from outside of me, imposed by some cruel, overly critical little imp--"your teeth are a little crooked, and remember that one photo of you where you tried to smile when you were thinking too hard about it? You look like that. It's just weird." I shrink a little. I give in to that noise in my head and think, "What is wrong with me? Why doesn't everyone just leave me alone and let my face rest from all of this strained, forced smiling?"

I'm fighting a losing battle with those kinds of thoughts, though. Human psychology tells me that it doesn't matter what my intentions are--impressions mean a lot. And while pouty, moody women might look sexy in some static atmosphere, like a magazine or a Calvin Klein ad, it's not the most welcoming expression to see on someone's face when you're shaking their hand for the first time. My impulse has been to overcompensate, and it's had some success. But sometimes, I just don't think about it--and apparently, that's when I lose out on job opportunities.

So, what's a somber-faced, truly optimistic, overly neurotic woman still recovering from a lifetime of shyness supposed to do? Rock the pouty, moody look that comes so easily, of course! Hey, if you've got it, you're supposed to flaunt it, right?:

Obviously, if you can do this in black and white, it looks way better.

I suppose I could also take a queue from that optimistic disposition that I keep insisting that I have and just smile like a crazy person and not care how it comes off. The "fake it until you make it" approach has worked for me in other areas of my life, so why not here? It has taken years for me to just get at this current level of comfort with my outward appearance and self-expression, but I suppose such changes can only take root over time. I hate being disingenuous, and not because I am some paragon of the virtue of honesty, as much as I'd like to claim to be, but because I'm just really bad at it. You'd think someone like me would have a pretty good poker face, so to speak. I really don't--my heart is on my sleeve whether I want it there or not.

But perhaps there is something quietly heroic and impressive about being able to smile through anything, at any time, and even for no reason. My face often feels like a shroud at any given moment, perhaps because I've gotten used to being on guard, like any shy, overly self-conscious person that has had people in her face all her life over the state of her face. I'll try to take a queue from the many facets of cultural wisdom that tells me to shut up, get over it, and smile through every stupid storm that hits us in this crazy thing called "life."

After all, it was just a part-time job, right?

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it's breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile


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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.