It was the Winter solstice – the day with the shortest amount of light in the year. I was walking to my local supermarket. Masks are obligatory inside, but the latest mandates about mask-wearing included outside spaces in an ill-defined way. Intentionally so, it seemed. I found myself the only one not wearing one as I made my way through the parking lot. It was likely that many people had not got around to removing their mask, with all the mini-chores and gestures required to complete their shopping and load the car. But many others had probably just got into the habit of wearing them. It was also likely that many were so addled by the constant shifting of the goalposts by the government that they had become more cautionary than they needed to be. Not knowing exactly where the line was drawn, they remained well behind it. Just in case. I had listened to several dissidents in my work in human rights tell me how the authorities in authoritarian states were forever moving the line. They did it on purpose, so that the people never knew exactly where the line was, and in fear of accidentally crossing it and getting penalized, would act as if the line was closer than it really was. This is self-censorship, a well documented phenomenon of a traumatized society.
I felt a small personal duty to not step too far behind the line, in fact to move as close to it as possible and look it in the eye. I had watched from the beginning how the masks had changed us, in ways that for many were imperceptible until their interactions with their fellow human beings had become so mutated that they were practically unrecognizable. The masks had for a long time been less about public health and more about symbolism. They were no longer about a virus. They had become ritualistic symbols, public indicators of a ‘good citizen’. And this mattered more than any scientific evidence or objective truths about whether they offered any meaningful protection or not.
These innocuous items, so cheap you buy them in packs of twenty and never care if you lose one because there are always plenty more to stuff into landfills and choke up the oceans, have taken a heavy toll on us that we all can feel but rarely share. With three quarters of our faces obscured we can no longer communicate properly. We can no longer co-regulate in the way we used to, on a bus, crossing a road, in a line at the supermarket. The masks have not only hidden our smiles, they have rendered them impotent. The result is that we are smiling less. Smiles are born to be perceived, to be shared. And more – to be felt. A smile says, you exist to me, you matter. We are the same. A smile does not just communicate an acknowledgement of the other’s validity, a smile is also a receptor. Because when we smile, miraculous changes occur in our nervous systems. There is a deep neuroscience to all this that involves the longest cranial nerve, the Vagus; the flagship nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. Unsurprisingly, the Vagus Nerve is activated by social cues of safety such as gentle eye contact (not staring) and yes, from smiling and perceiving smiles. In muffling our smiles, masks are not neutral items. They are essentially anti-human, powered by the crushing drudgery of the machine-mind. They do more than obscure our faces. They obscure our humanity.
The knock-on effect of this eclipse was disastrous. But it was disastrous in a way that few had the capacity, energy or proclivity to imagine at the time. And, after all, it was ‘just’ a mask. Yet the changes were startling. People who had before always said hello and good evening stayed silent, passing each other furtively with downcast eyes. In the Before Time, eye contact was the least we would do – a second was all it took, to establish that yes I see you and you see me. It was now so rare that people seemed startled by the gesture. The smile eclipse made it so that even the ones who had not given up could not offer a shot of Bon Courage! to their fellows, and this combined with the constant tirade of fear-mongering made even the gentlest pupil to pupil contact seem like a threat. You could see this clearly, eyeballs popping out over the washed out blue fabric, rattling like pinballs. Fear is the most transmissible variant of them all.
We had forgotten who we are. Lost touch with the ancestral parts of ourselves. We were on a conveyor belt towards the machine life, a life most had never chosen. Hundreds of thousands of years of smiles. How many? Spanning histories, geography, cultures, races. A smile is disarmament. How many conflicts has a smile prevented or diffused? A smile is an invitation. How many friendships and romances has a smile inspired? Can you draw a line from a smile to a newborn child? From a smile to an adventure? A smile is light. How many have felt seen in the darkness because of a smile? A smile is faith. How many acts of confidence and trust have been seeded with a smile? The smile is part of our social DNA and we are measurably less human for its deprivation.
Smiling was now an act of resistance. A ‘no’ to the machine. A ‘yes’ to nature. A simple elevation of the lips of the encountered other could help to calm, perhaps for just a moment, a fretful and mistrusting mind. Even though it is invisible beneath the mask, many of us continue to send the signals anyway. Beneath the mask, our smiles operate like secret agents. We squeeze it out out through our eyes – this ancient code. Just in case anyone is still looking.
There were some days, I admit that I didn’t. Couldn’t. When it felt pointless. When I too fell into the shadow of the eclipse. Those days I hid myself like everyone else. But something in me kept refusing to give in. The horn of the ancient code howling in the very cells of blood. A smile is an essential part of our social fabric. And I couldn’t let this little piece of mass-produced slave-fingered labour fabric rip it further to shreds. In this world, even a smile can be an act of Revolt.
My smile buster was lurking in my left jean pocket. Like everyone else, I had a routine. Mine was to pull it out unceremoniously at the last possible moment at the boundary of the revolving glass doors.
It was with all of this swirling through my mind that I passed a young family stocking their car with Christmas. The couple were having a bit of a tiff while the daughter, about eight years old looked on patiently. Sitting in the shopping trolley was a little boy of about three. He had a fat full moon face and curls of sandy hair around his plump cheeks. We caught each other’s eye and something extraordinary happened. He smiled.
I don’t know who started it. Had I smiled at him first? It seemed simultaneous. All I knew was that it was marvelous. His face lit up like a beacon of wonder. A smile! At me! Hooray! Yipee! I’m pretty sure my face was just the same. We were the only two around not masked up, and this somehow the light that shone between us all the more bright. As if all the hidden smiles that had had nowhere to go, no way to express themselves, had suddenly found a way through and like love-seeking missiles had all collided in this simple moment between two strangers and three generations.
My heart moved in my chest. An actual physical shift, sure as an earth tremor. And waves of warmth flowed through the area around my heart. It was both emitting and receiving this warmth at the same time. The usual subject/object distinction had dissolved. The moment couldn’t have lasted more than three seconds but I could write a whole movie script about it. When I think about that incident, it is as if it lasted for hours. It was one of the purest moments I have known. I could call it ‘love’ but that seems lazy. It was like the solution to a puzzle frowned over for centuries; two stars exchanging gases in the vastness of space; a balm for a hundred kinds of pain. I can break it down and look at it from multiple points of view, this Rubik Cube beauty. Every one of them lovely, every one of them filled with hope and meaning. Every one of them precious, fragile and heroic. That smile was his and mine and all the world’s at once.
For the rest of the day, when I thought of this boy’s smile, my heart lit up like a glowworm. I can feel it now as I write about it. For me that boy’s smile was a light in the darkness and I believe mine was the same for him.
And it was immeasurable.
In these times when our experience is being weighed solely in graphs, statistics and numbers. When mathematicians are the new overlords. When our view upon the world is being reduced to the grueling slog of endless binaries that atomize us further from the heart of things. In these times, it is the incalculable values that will keep us from losing touch with our humanity. A smile is immeasurable. And I firmly believe that it is the immeasurables that will save us.
I enjoy your posts very much. It’s heartening to see communication still possible. Without feeling that one has to take sides. That one can be open to ideas and empathetic with people carrying different points of view without judging. I agree that much of what goes on is manipulative. Just not sure if mask policies have deeper agendas. Perhaps they’re just reflective of people being uncertain and bumbling through, making policies to the best of their understanding. But we absolutely should watch our own reactivity, that we may be reacting out of fear of disapproval rather than genuinely trying to do what is best for all. Just to see and appreciate these factors. Perhaps we carry bits of both.
I have become aware of how much our eyes and our facial area around them express. I make a conscious effort to bring energy to my eyes when I smile, to really smile with my eyes when I encounter another person (or an animal for that matter). I remember actually many instances in our pre-mask era when there were lots of smiles but eyes not really engaged. Lips smiling without that eye-warmth – very superficial social signal. So, your post reminds me that regardless of our masking or not there is a more fundamental value: genuinely generating and projecting the warmth of our hearts into the eyes of those we encounter.
Thank you for such a thoughtful response. It is important, as you say, to reflect on these things and come to our own conclusions, being aware of course that these conclusions might be temporary! Wonderful to hear that you are still smiling! Genuinely so 🙂 Bon courage to you.