The Power of a Smile

   Recently I gave a presentation to my Swedish Lodge ( for people of Swedish descent, who like to stay in touch with their Swedish-ness) on this subject:  “A Mystery:  The Life and Paintings of Carl Larsson.”  Larsson is remembered for the watercolors of his 8 children and his wonderful wife, Karin Bergoo, their happy life together in a warm cottage-like setting, outside picnicking in the woods, swimming and fishing, celebrating events, a happy family living a natural healthy simple life.  They actually began the movement of Swedes towards interior design based on wood, textiles, lots of light and simple design.

    The life Carl painted was truly happy for him.  But his life before Karin was just as truly terrible – a childhood of deep poverty, in housing surrounded by other suffering people of all kinds, an abusive drinking father, poor education, and the normal struggles of a young artist trying to find a way to make a living. I called my presentation “A Mystery” because I find it fascinating to try to understand how some people with terrible childhoods are still able to grow into normal functioning and HAPPY adults.  I read Carl Larsson’s short and beautifully written autobiography looking for clues as to how he managed to bring his life around.        Here is just one of the interesting clues I noted.

   In his early twenties he was ready to give up.  Here I’ll let him tell this little memory:

 “Once I was so sad, I had finally had enough of life, and in this mood I walked with heavy steps up the hill on Riddargatan.  But right then I met these two.  They were walking arm in arm, almost dancing downhill, she leaning against her beau with a tender smile, and he!  It cannot be described!  A broad gutta-percha face with the corners of the mouth each hooked onto its own ear, round glasses, and through them everything cheerful and joyous in life was glittering.  …I had never seen such genuine, unshakeable, real joy!  For me, that was a turning point.  I said to myself:  “It must be possible that earth is lovely.”  …Since then nobody has ever seen me exhibit a clouded face in the street.  I became convinced that it is the damn duty of each and every one to spread cheerfulness with a sunny face in public.  Even though…”  (p33)

   Even though – one carries terrible burdens and sadness inside.  The smiles on these two people had perhaps saved his life!  It seemed the least he could do, should do, to keep a cheerful countenance himself for the sake of others.

     I remember some touching moments in my own life that taught me something similar about how the smallest gesture to another can have much more power than we could guess.

    My small rural high school did not have enough students to offer tracked classes for “gifted”, “special needs,”  and such, so all abilities were glopped together.   My graduating class was 44 in number, some having dropped out immediately when they turned 16.  There were various students who kind of slept through classes, never did homework. I never judged them; they were just there with us all.   There was a boy named Jim Evans who was a “drugstore cowboy,” in our parlance – they wore their hair slicked back with sideburns, smoked behind the bank at lunch, but they didn’t do anything criminal.  Jim generally didn’t seem to do homework at all; he sat across from me, back one seat.

    One day the English teacher called on him with a simple question and he didn’t know the answer.  Red-headed chubby Phil sat in front of me and liked to put himself up with the know-it-alls whenever possible.  Phil turned around and said something snide and demeaning to Jim.  I just said something simple to Phil like, “Phil, turn around and mind your own business.”   That he did.

    At lunch I went with my friend Shirley to the town park; we were sitting on the grass under a tree talking when I noticed something fall into my lap.  A dandelion!  I looked up and there was Jim hurrying away but looking back at me briefly with a slight shy smile.  I was so surprised!  And I knew it was his way of saying “Thank you!”

    “Thank you” for what?  I hadn’t felt like any hero, hadn’t even mentioned the meanness in Phil’s comment, although it was true that I spoke because Phil was purposely being mean.  I often wondered after that what Jim’s life was like that such a small gesture in his defense could mean so much to him.  I knew that in the back country around our small town there was great poverty, parental neglect and abuse, so much hidden from the view of others.

   Another similar high school memory:  one day I went into the girls’ washroom; there were only two girls there, at the mirror.  Barbara and Sandra were somewhat “plain” in their looks and the clothes they wore spoke of serious poverty.  Sandra walked around with her head down and hanging forward most of the time; Barbara walked erect with her head up but all her movements were slow and quiet, like a person already tired and discouraged in life.  There was no one else in the room (Honestly, this might have affected me had someone else been there!) I never “hung around” with these girls, but they were okay to me and I just decided to speak to them.  I said something simple like, “Hi!   How are you?”  They both opened their faces into surprised smiles and nodded, mumbling back to me something like “Good,” still with their shy smiles. 

   I was mystified by their reaction.  When I thought about it later I realized that I was smart and generally liked and from a respectable family, the “other” part of the world to which they had no access.  For me to greet them like they were normal people seemed to change their feeling about themselves, like they were okay after all. 

    In my rural public school I missed out on academics that felt challenging enough but my heart received an education, over and over.  I dated one of those guys who slept through class and never did his homework.  His parents had died in a car accident when he was six and he went into the foster system where a local farmer took him in to help with farm work.  He got up at 4 am to do chores and therefor slept through class; the farmer was kind but no one cared if he did well in school.  His face was pockmarked from a rifle going off.   Now there was a guy with a good heart though.  When he turned sixteen he went into the army to find a life for himself.

   Another boy had been in my class for several years, doing poorly, and then about 12th grade I noticed he had dropped to the class below us; I realized this passing him in the hallway one day and he put his head down so maybe I wouldn’t see him.  Later in life I learned his father had been an alcoholic and ranted and abused him and one day had smashed a watermelon on his head. /  I remember also walking home in elementary school on the dirt road behind our house and realizing that a boy from my class was  living with his mother and 4 siblings in a chicken coop!  It literally still had chicken wire all around it.

   Well, my little missive was to encourage us all to share a smile or kind word wherever we go, regardless of what sorrows we carry inside. There is so much we do not know about why others appear as they do, what great burdens and limitations others live under, and smiling is so easy!  A quiet grin, a “Hi,” – the very least we can do and perhaps exactly what someone needs.

January 14, 2022