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The Smiling Dude


“I am convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter.”

-Maya Angelou

On my morning walk to work, I pass dozens of people on their way to a major public transit station. For the most part, what I see is a grim parade of pre-dawn resignation and expressionless shuffling toward, what I can only imagine are, unsatisfactory jobs. Let’s just say there’s not a lot of skipping going on.

I know the feeling.

I’ve spent many mornings in the past with the same look on my face, the same resignation, the same gallows walk…wishing for escape, for bed, for meaning…not willing to acknowledge that I was responsible for how I felt… and instead, slipping into the cool but polluted seas of victimhood, where I could blame someone else for drowning me while I held my own head underwater.

Thankfully, I don’t feel like that anymore. I have, for now, started the process of liberating myself from my stories and life has become much lighter than it has ever been. But you can’t go around telling people that. There is nothing so tiresome as a newly minted evangelist, and so I keep my mouth shut…because this stuff is personal and, well, who asked me anyway? Nobody.

But in thinking about what it means to be a Bodhisattva and to actively try to alleviate suffering in the world, doing nothing often feels unsatisfactory as well. So, I started a new campaign. It’s pretty simple.

I smile at people.

Actually, I didn’t start by smiling “at” them, because I thought it might be taken as creepy or too forward. I started just by smiling to myself from the time I began my walk until the time I got to work…which was surprisingly difficult in itself. Having grown up in an urban setting, I learned to have a “street face” at a very young age and I have worn it ever since. It keeps the crazy away…but the flip side is: it keeps everybody else away too.

So, I decided that for my two mile walk, I would be the smiling guy. Just a dude, walking to work, looking happy about it. I did this for about a month. I made no eye contact with anyone and I kept a comfortable distance from my fellow commuters. I figured that, if anyone had been glancing in my direction, thirty days was a good amount of time to build up the mystique of the “dude who is always smiling” and maybe I had piqued the interest of at least one of my fellow humans with my relentless appearance of non-threatening happiness.

Turns out, I had.

One day, I decided it was time to heighten the stakes and start to make eye contact with people. By now, I knew who the regulars were who passed me on my two mile journey and I had pre-selected four of them to try my little experiment on…two men and two women. I usually passed all of them within two blocks of each other, so I could get it over with quickly and not give myself time to get nervous about it.

The first person I ran across was “Burly Dude with Red Beats Headphones” who is the most imposing of the four and, unsurprisingly, I got totally blanked by him. Not even a glance. Next, I saw “Super Girl Fast Walker” who is either perpetually late for work or just enjoys burning up the pavement. We made eye contact, but that was it. I was starting to feel like this might have been a stupid idea and that I was just freaking people out, but I decided to keep on with it, if only for that day. So, next in line was “Bobby Business” who looks like he’s always on his way to close a huge real estate deal. Bobby didn’t even look up from his phone and continued his purposeful and driven walk right on past me. And then, finally, I ran across “Introverted Sally” who looks like she might work in a bookstore or small gift shop that sells magnets made out of seashells. Sally was honestly the last person out of the four I expected to return a smile…but…lo and behold, she did. It was small, but it was there.

Maybe this wasn’t so stupid.

Over the next month, Introverted Sally and I kept smiling at each other. She even waved at me once when we found ourselves on opposite sides of the street. During this time I also managed to crack “Super Girl Fast Walker” and “Bobby Business”. Super Girl’s smile is a bit more cursory/cautious and Bobby prefers a quick half-smile and a head nod rather than anything warmer. But that’s cool. A connection is a connection and, honestly, I didn’t think he or Super Girl would ever come around anyway.

So, now I have a tribe of three. We’ve been silently relating to each other for four months now. I have no idea what this does for them or what they think of the “Smiling Dude”, but they seem to like it and I certainly look forward to it every morning. So much so that I really miss one of them if they are “absent” from our little ritual for one reason or another. And although “Burly Dude with Red Beats Headphones” has yet to fully join the club (he has acknowledged me on a couple of occasions), I have high hopes for his conversion.

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