Outside In: The Significance of a Smile
When you say the word ‘poverty,’ I immediately think about the environment around me and the struggles that I witness day-to-day. Whilst poverty exists in all countries, it is often kept behind closed doors, brushed under the carpet, pushed to the edges of society. In Egypt, we cannot hide from it – and every time the prices rise, we are more acutely aware of the pressures being placed on families at every level of society.
But financial hardship is not the only kind of poverty. Loneliness is a kind of poverty that is increasingly discussed in the media – often highlighting the irony that becoming more connected online can lead to higher levels of isolation. At this time of year, many new people and families are still adjusting to life in Cairo. They may regularly be connecting with friends and family back home, but are still finding their identity and role in new communities. It is a slow process, and it can be a lonely one.
A big contributor to loneliness is a sense of isolation, and it is something that I am aware of as I go about my business in Maadi. It would be so easy for me to allow my struggles with language and my unfamiliarity with the many different cultures around me to cause me to isolate myself, to stay within the bounds of all that is safe and familiar. Stepping out of comfort zones can feel huge and daunting – but there are always simple steps.
One of my biggest joys of returning to Cairo after being away in the summer was delighting afresh in the act of smiling at people in the street and receiving a warm, welcoming acknowledgment back. It is such a small, insignificant gesture, but it is a spark of connection that makes me feel less isolated. I can recall specific moments of exchanging smiles: the soldiers at the airport, standing guard by their tank, smiling at me at my 4-year-old as we went hunting for a toilet; a lady in her car on the corniche, smiling at me as I revelled in the freedom of riding along the Nile on the back of my husband’s scooter; a group of ladies waiting for transport who smiled at the kids and me as we crossed the busy road by the kobri. They aren’t earth-shattering moments of deep exchange, but they mark a flicker of connection that builds bridges and pushes aside isolation.
Even as I write this, I question if I’m making more of something than it really is, but social and psychological research affirms the power of smiling. There is the good that it does for you – using your facial muscles can improve your mood; even fake smiles can make you feel happy. Smiling reduces stress and lowers heart rate. Smiling helps our brains form positive-thinking patterns and so on and so forth. So many Ph.D. papers! The one that caught my attention draws the focus away from how smiling makes me feel to the impact that it can have on others. Apparently, the reciprocated smile stems from ‘mirror neurons’ which help us to interpret the actions of others by causing us to imitate what we see.
Marco Iacobini, a neuroscientist at the University of California, is quoted in the Scientific American:
When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.1
So, when I smile, it helps me to feel better. When I smile, you imitate the action and smile too, causing you to feel the same feelings of happiness and joy that I am experiencing.
It seems so small, it seems so insignificant, but I have been recently challenged by the words of writer and theologian Henri Nouwen to believe that small things have a bigger impact than we realise:
Imagine that, in the center of your heart, you trust that your smiles and handshakes, your embraces and your kisses are only the early signs of a worldwide community of love and peace. Imagine that your trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles – just as a little stone thrown into a still pond. Imagine, imagine…2
I don’t know if small gestures can make much difference to the poverty that we see in this city and around the world. But I firmly believe that making connections with those around us, however insignificant they may seem, can help us to build communities of love and peace.
- Nouwen, Henri; Life of the Beloved; Crossroad Publishing Company: 2002, pp123-4.