Monday, November 2, 2015

It's Ok To (Not) Smile AKA Dealing With Grumpy Cat Syndrome

About ten years ago, I was serving as a preschool teacher on the summer staff at a Christian conference center.  Preschool teachers were a rare breed among the summer staff.  We had the appearance of being cliquish because our hours were so long and random that we didn't always have time to interact with other staffers.  Also, I was the oldest summer staffer that year--some 8 years older than some of the teenagers they had working there.  I was at a different place in my life than most of them.  I wasn't particularly anti-social and did spend a fair amount of time hanging out in the staff center, but I also spent a lot of time in my room resting (after all, I AM an introvert).  When I did hang out, it was usually with my preschool friends because they were the ones I knew the best.

So imagine my surprise one day near the end of the summer, when one of the other staffers--I can't remember which department he worked in--approached me and said, "I've been wanting to say this to you all summer.  You never smile!  You are SO negative all the time, and that's not displaying a good Christian attitude.  Just smile!"  He was extremely agitated in manner, which caught me even more off-guard.

I was absolutely flustered, and tried to offer rebuttal along the lines of, "Actually, I smile a lot, but you aren't around me that often, and you don't know me well enough to make such a claim," which was a pretty valid point.  I also said something like, "Am I supposed to walk around smiling all the time like an idiot, because that's actually kind of creepy"  That was also a pretty valid point, but it only served to make him more agitated.  He "rebuked" me some more, wouldn't let me get much of a word in edgewise, and I finally just walked away from him, went back to my room, and cried.

Good job making me smile more, buddy.

That was probably the first time I've felt accosted about "not smiling," but honestly, it's something I've heard off and on throughout my life.  People--friends, family, strangers, have often told me things like, "Smile!  It can't be that bad!"  One guy actually stopped me in the Walmart one time and said, "You look sad, and I think God wants me to pray for you.  Can I pray with you right now?"  I let him, but I was like, "Thanks, but really, stranger dude...I'm FINE."

In all of these situations, I wasn't ACTIVELY not smiling.  I suffer from a condition that the interwebsnettubes now refers to as "Resting B*1@# Face," but I don't like to call it that.  I like to call it "Grumpy Cat Syndrome" or GCS.  It's when your neutral face looks grumpy (because Grumpy Cat AKA Tardar Sauce is actually a pretty friendly kitty, from what I've seen--she just looks adorably grumpy all the time).  Basically, I'm the human version of Grumpy Cat.  And I like it.

There are several candid pictures from my childhood where someone caught me looking mad at the universe, when really, I was just suffering from GCS.  And in a lot of pictures where I WAS trying to smile, I just managed a weak grimace that made me look as though I couldn't wait for the picture-taking to be over.  

Now that we're in the world of selfies, I do tend to take my fair share of them (and with a crappy cell phone without a front-facing camera, I might add).  In a lot of my selfies, I just don't smile.  No one is standing behind the camera demanding my smiling face, so sometimes, I don't.  I post these unsmiling pictures, and people sometimes ask, "Why aren't you smiling?" as if that's a rule or something.

This IS my happy face.

And I don't think most people mean a single thing by any of it, but it got me thinking.  Why does it seem to bother society when we see someone not smiling?  I don't think most people are intentionally thinking it through, but I think most of us humans have trouble seeing other humans who aren't happy.  Selfishly, perhaps, we want others to look happy, because that makes us more comfortable.  And maybe that's not a completely fair or accurate assessment, especially not in MOST cases, but I do think it's something to think about.

Because I googled "smile quotes" today, and the results were somewhat sad.  I got a few cheesy ones about how "a smile is the prettiest thing you can wear," but a lot of what I saw was about people faking a smile for the world to see, while on the inside they were miserable.  A lot of people have learned how to put on a mask so the world will be able to accommodate them better.

I've never learned how to fake a smile.

That's why my childhood photographs are a lot of images of me grimacing (I'm proud to say I inherited this trait from my daddy).  That's why when I take pictures now, I often tell people behind the camera to say or do something that will make me laugh, because I want my smile to be genuine and not a forced grimace.  

And I do have a lot of genuine smiles.  I laugh.  I sing.  I also cry.  I also have neutral moments where  I might look angry, but I'm probably just thinking about either solving the world's problems or about what I'm going to have for dinner or about how much I just love Doctor Who or whatever.  

No one is perfect.  All of us are going to have those times where we absent-mindedly tell someone to cheer up, and we need to be gracious in those times.  But I think the better thing for us to do if we see someone not smiling is to ASK and not ASSUME (or, you know, just mind your own business...just a suggestion...).

I think it's perfectly fine to ask someone if they're all right, but be prepared for the answer.  If a person says they're fine, they might be lying.  On the other hand, they might be telling the truth.  I am not one to lie about how I'm feeling, so it bothers me when someone insists I'm miserable even when I tell them, point blank, that I'm okay.  I understand that in a society of people who wear masks, it's probably a knee-jerk thing to assume everyone is lying, but listening is crucial.  Unless you have some pretty darn good reasons to believe someone is lying about how they're feeling, please take them at their word.  On the other hand, if you ask someone if they're okay and they tell you they aren't, then you'd better be prepared to listen to that, too.  Don't ask someone if they're okay unless you're prepared to listen to them if they aren't.  That kind of listening often involves an investment of time and caring.  Be prepared.

Also, don't judge.  If someone looks angry/sad/miserable/etc., don't assume that it's because they really are angry/sad/miserable/etc.  Also don't assume that if someone IS actually angry/sad/miserable/etc. that it means they have no valid reason to feel that way.  Telling someone to smile when you think they're sad is like telling someone to just slap a bandaid on an open wound so you don't have to see their blood--you're not helping their problem; you're making it easier for YOU to deal with it.

That misguided, but probably well-meaning fellow summer staffer told me that I wasn't displaying a Christian attitude, but he made assumptions, he didn't listen, and he judged me.  Ironically, the one who wasn't displaying a Christian attitude was him.  HE was the one being negative by judging another.  And unfortunately, I've seen others act that very same way over the past ten years. 

But since I'm not one to just smile and pretend everything is okay, I'm talking about it.  I'm putting this out there to let others with GCS know that they aren't alone, and to possibly let others know that it's not okay to look down on others for not being perpetually happy.

I'm not anti-smiling.  It's perfectly fine to smile.  It's good to smile.  It's also okay, and even good sometimes, not to smile.  It's the "reallness" that's the thing.  I'd rather see genuine tears than a fake smile, any day.  

After all, Grumpy Cat is proof that someone doesn't need to smile to be beautiful.

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