Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. — Thich Nhat Hanh
I disliked the book from its first line:
“This doesn’t feel right, patron.” Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.
In spite of my initial response, I read ninety-nine pages. But, no more! I love the author, Louise Penny. I mostly enjoyed the first sixteen novels in the Inspector Gamache series. However, this one, I will not finish. As the saying goes, “Life is too short to drink cheap wine.” Likewise, life is too short to read bleak novels.
Pandemics can bruise our spirit, darken our outlook, wear us down. During this difficult time, it is important to take care of our psychological well-being. Read books that inspire, listen to music that soothes, walk in nature, associate with optimistic people and take time every day to smile and express gratitude. A positive attitude protects us, uplifts us, allows us to be our best possible selves.
My friend’s husband, Shawn exemplified positivity. While still a teenager, Shawn was diagnosed with dystonia. The Mayo Clinic website describes the disease as an incurable movement disorder in which muscles contract involuntarily causing repetitive or twisting movements.
I met Lauren, Shawn’s wife, at a local arts centre. We were both in our forties and Shawn six years older. Lauren and I are soulmates, kindred spirits, or whatever other term describes the heart-to-heart connection between two people. When Lauren introduced me to her husband of almost thirty years, his eyes mesmerized me. Large, bright, blue. His smile crinkled his entire face. When I asked Shawn, how he was doing, he replied, “Tickety-boo”. The thick padded neck brace disappeared. I saw only the joyful man in the easy chair. The intense pain, the debilitation, the surgeries, the injections, none of these were evident in Shawn’s shining eyes, lilting voice, and radiant visage.
I visited Shawn in the hospital a few days before his death. His body contorted, his face twisted, the morphine no longer sufficient to ease the pain, he smiled up at me and assured me he was “Tickety-boo.”
At Shawn’s celebration of life, Lauren gave to each attendee, a small, white, concrete bird. For eight years that symbol of Shawn’s luminous spirit has rested in my garden. It never fails to make me smile and remember that remarkable man.
Smiling makes us healthier. Frequent, unabashed smiling has been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve the immune system, and may even reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Melissa Norton, founder of Four Wellness Co.
My niece also exemplifies a keen enjoyment of living despite an incurable disease. Alison has a rare type of blood cancer that causes severe pain in all of her nerve endings. On “bad” days, she lies immobile on the living room couch. The smallest movement sends shock waves through her body. On “better” days, she accomplishes small tasks such as cleaning the bathroom sink, or the toilet, or the tub. On “good” days she cooks, shops or even attends a gentle yoga class. Chemotherapy lessens, but does not eliminate, the discomfort. Before her illness, Alison and her husband led active lives. Among other pastimes, they biked, kayaked, and hiked. Even though Alison can no longer do those things, she makes certain to rest during the week so that on designated weekends, she can travel with her husband to one of their favourite trails or rivers. Alex heads off alone on an adventure; Alison drives and meets him at his destination. Those are her “best” days.
When I asked Alison how she keeps such a positive outlook, she said, “With humour and with God.”
I thought about Lauren’s tribute to Shawn, where she wrote that the best part of their relationship was the laughter. I recalled Ruth, a wise yoga teacher, explaining the benefits of smiling. How the muscles activated send a message to the brain to release feel-happy hormones. Ruth said that if you simply could not smile, put a pencil between your teeth. The same muscles respond, the brain is tricked, stress is reduced and positive feelings ensue. I shared that advice with Alison. Perhaps she can use it on the bad days.
Living through a pandemic is not the same as living with an incurable disease. The pandemic will probably become endemic; most of us will resume our previous lives. But, what Shawn and Alison taught me was that if they were able to stay positive and experience joy in their lives, in spite of intense suffering, than I, who am blessed with good health, can certainly do the same.
So, smile for yourself, share your smile with others and make today’s world a healthier, happier place.