Smiling Behind Masks

I was scanning lines, searching for articles in the news, trying to choose what I’d read and what I wouldn’t. The morning read. The light reading. The reading I wouldn’t quite plunge into, even if what I saw would sit on the corners of my mental bookshelves throughout the day.

I didn’t read the article but I saw a title on a page about why you should smile behind your mask. It got me to thinking about my own answers to the prompt and about the dual possibilities of wearing a mask, of being masked, and of being authentic. It got me to considering where smiles come from.

And the title prompt is a good one, no? Smile in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of a day when it’s nothing but helpful that people can’t see the twist and curve of my lips when I hear what they say, see what they do, note who they are? But does it take something away, hiding these things called smiles?

Like lots of people, I think about how these masks are more than tools to maintain health and to minimize transmission of germs. A mask is a direct way to keep from seeing and being seen. Masks keep your germs to you but they also keep you from spreading your true identity in a way.

Masks can keep you in the habit of being fake, practicing inauthenticity, accepting reality as you offer yourself in the world without the important contribution of feedback.

As much as a mask is a tool promoting real health, these masks are also complicating the already complicated practice of being and showing who you are. Don’t we have enough trouble being who we are, presenting ourselves as we are?

So smiling. Smiling is a behavioral way of responding. It’s an embodied act, a gesture, sometimes an uncontrolled one. They are reflexes of a kind. They are also interventions. Reflexes show up spontaneously. Interventions come as a result of intention. Smiles can be both.

In college, I took–and dropped at midterm–an anthropology course. It was cross listed as a gender studies course. A three hundred level thing I was not ready for in my second year at U of I. I had never heard of gender studies and wasn’t even surprised to be the only young man in the room. Even less surprised to be the only Black because, well, it wasn’t Hampton.

The professor was as tall as anyone I had ever seen and she walked with a power and grace that was curious to me. She had done work too deep for me to appreciate at the time and talked about it. She pressed her feet into the floor as she taught, moving through the room in sandals, which threw me off, because it was cold all the time in Urbana-Champaign.

I have forgotten most things from the class. As I said, I dropped the course. But one thing I remember is something she started into about smiling. She was describing the behavior in chimps, explaining that a smile was theorized as a passive, self-effacing attempt on the part of the animals. Smiling was like cowering. Smiling was an attempt at deference in the presence of some stronger chimp, some more powerful other.

Now, I like smiles. They are surprising, often reactive, things. They come when you force them and when you think nothing of them. You can smile in a way that expresses disgust. You can smile from within and show everything that needs to be seen.

They can be attempts to pass the moment quickly and to relieve pressure, perhaps like with the chimps, and smiles can anchor you so far inside joy that you use all your good and bad teeth.

I think there are questions developing in me about these smiles and these masks. Which smile am I offering behind this mask? Am I en-joying myself, finding joy inside the face and body that is restricted or not by this mask? Am I being seen for the sometimes grumpy man I am? Is the soul deep joy coming through my ears, my eyes, off my head like a little halo?

But there are other questions. Am I hiding? Am I bouncing off that fabric or paper mask the reality that I’ve created, reiterating a lie about who I am, and keeping my germs to myself? Am I, therefore, ineligible for healing? Can I be seen for any fraudulent expressions of myself, and am I finding paths to be open and real and honest and accepting of truth? Am I looking at my real face and my real self in mirrors of life that I haven’t created, those self-created mirrors that make me look better than I really am? Am I looking?

Sometimes you smile when you know you’re in the presence of greatness, of a greater person, or a greater other if you will. I wonder if you and if I can cower in the presence of the truer other in the self. I wonder if rather than living inauthentically, you might consider smiling at who you truly are. Of course, the other related inquiry is who are you?

When you know who you are, there is very little to frown about. Even behind a mask you smile because of the reactive and reflexive delight in being the person you deeply, honestly, and truly are. I think it’s the unknowing, the rejection of one’s identity, that causes the downward smile.

When you know who and where and why you are, you meet joy. A joy that cannot be taken but only given away. That means, when you know you, you’ve found happiness. How can you not smile behind the mask?

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