Sometimes a smile hides pain, instead of showing joy. I know this from experience. I was reminded of that the other day when I was watching The Best of the Oprah Show on OWN. The episode was with Dr. Robert Holden the founder of the Happiness Project in England. Five people had volunteered to take a happiness test. The audience was supposed to look at the volunteers, hear a little bit about their stories and choose the one they thought was the most happy. Then they’d find out if their choice was correct according to the test results. It was interesting that the person the audience thought was the most happy, ended up being one of the most unhappy of the group. Why did they think she was the most happy? Because of her big smile. When she said, “All day long I put on a happy face and people think I’m the happiest person alive, it’s a big lie.” That reminded me of a time in my life when my smile hid a big lie.
I was attending the college sponsored by the church in which I grew up. It was the end of the day and I walking through the Student Union building headed back to my dorm, when I came upon Reed, a dear friend of my parents. He was attending a conference at the college. We chatted about my parents and how I was doing. At one point he stopped and gave me the most intense look. Then he said, “Your smile is hiding some deep pain. You’re very unhappy.” The truth of what he said slapped my emotions, but I wasn’t mature enough to acknowledge that he was right. I was terribly unhappy. He was kind and told me that it was okay not to tell him what was going on, but I should find someone to talk to.
When I got back to my dorm room, I sat and thought for a long time about what Reed had said to me. In that moment I faced the rage that had been building up over the past few months. I was angry at three or four students who were harassing me about being the only woman who had declared Religious Studies as a major. Who gave them the right to tell me how to live my life?
Here’s a little background information to help you understand my position. It was the mid-70s. The church I belonged to didn’t ordain women as ministers. The church has a lay ministry, and often students who want to be ministers and possibly work for the World Church at headquarters, are Religious Studies students. So, naturally, everyone thought I was declaring my intention to be an ordained minister in the church. I’m not that much of a rabble rouser. My interest was purely personal and academic. I was and still am interested in the subject. I’m interested in how humans interact with and are influenced by the Divine. I was also on a personal journey of discovery. Whether or not the church decided to ordain women wasn’t foremost in my mind.
Meeting Reed in that hallway was a profound experience. He woke me up to the deep pain I felt at the daily harassment I faced. I took his advice and tried to talk to the Campus Minister. He was sympathetic, but couldn’t answer my questions. Maybe I wasn’t articulate enough, I don’t know. All I remember was that talking to him made me feel more alone.
Not long after that, someone, I don’t remember who, suggested I buy a notebook and start writing down my feelings. Thank Heaven for whoever that was, because my journal saved me. Once I began writing, my loneliness began to recede. Slowly my perspective changed. I learned to forgive those young men who thought I was broken. Something else happened too. I realized what others think about how I conduct my life isn’t very important.
My journal saved my life. In it’s pages I found a friend who would listen without judgement, and I gained new perspectives about myself. Now after 35 years of writing, I can say that I’m happy with my life. When I smile at people, it’s genuine. I don’t have to use it to hide my pain.