Masked Smiles

Smiles are a great way to show enjoyment of humorous moments, but they do much more. They greet, encourage, and motivate. They comfort, calm, and reassure. They allow people to see the humanity of the one smiling. They can be an image of love.

My smiles come as naturally as breathing so I’ve never given them much thought until now—when I’ve lost the ability to share them. In these COVID-19 days, other than when I’m walking alone in the neighborhood, my smile is covered, hidden under fabric designed to keep my germs to myself and the germs of others, away. 

At the grocery store, I recognize no one and no one recognizes me, though I’m surely seeing the same grocery workers I’ve encountered on a weekly basis for years. Thankfully, since most other customers are also wearing masks, I’m not mistaken for a bandit coming to rob the place.

An ad for the reopening of a dental office featured a dentist saying, “unleash the power of a smile.” A different dental office advertised with the statement, “a smile has the power to change us.” Smiles drive a lot of business in the world of dentistry, but what’s the point when they are covered by a mask?

How do you recognize someone when you can’t see their entire face? In the Post Office recently, a man I didn’t know was in line behind me. But then I realized he was wearing a mask exactly like the one I had on—a mask I had made. A closer look and a spoken question helped me to identify our friend, Bernie. I didn’t recognize him from his glasses or his eyes, from the thinning of his hair or the set of his shoulders. I didn’t know him without his smile.

Do people know me without my smile, without seeing the light gleam off my pearly whites? My smart phone certainly doesn’t. And people don’t seem to, so the mask hiding my smile feels as if it has also hidden the person wearing it. It has masked who I am and kept me from being known. In essence, it has taken away a part of me.

As a result of this pandemic, I’m trying to look at people differently to know them, perhaps memorize the shape of their eyes and the gait of their walk. But that’s a lot to take in during brief encounters.

And then there is the matter of emotions. We can’t even gauge those by the sound of a voice, muffled as it is under a mask. Relating to someone is difficult when we can’t tell if they are happy, sad, or angry. 

This is a new world, this world of anonymity. So how do we adjust? How do we flourish?

I’m trying to reflect more through my eyes. It’s said that eyes are a window to the soul. But eyes are limited in what they can show, not only from a distance of six feet, but also when they’re droopy from fatigue, worry, or aging. I’m straining to open mine wider, to intensify my gaze, and I’m hoping the smile on my hidden mouth creates smile crinkles around my eyes. 

I want to do more than just try to smile through a mask. I want to reassure those around me, to offer hope and comfort. In my efforts to care for people, I’m reaching out by means other than physical sight or touch: text messages, cards, Zoom meetings, surprise gifts left on doorsteps. 

And I’m praying.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 NIV

Prayer is like the smile of the heart, a smile that, even though covered by a mask, has power to change the world.

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