Smiling: A Sociology Experiment

We've all heard The Golden Rule- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", the origin of which is usually credited to Leviticus 19:18 and the words of the Lord in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31, also known as The Great Commandment.

For people who like techie speak, The Golden Rule represents the ethic of reciprocity. Every major religion, and some not so major, recognize this maxim, and most parents use it as a way to teach children how to be kind to others and learn empathy. Libertarians even apply the idea to government, proposing that individuals have the right to their life, liberty, and property, but that they also must respect the life, liberty, and property of others.

I was certainly taught these principles when I was a child, but unfortunately, I don't think most of it stuck. The idea didn't become precious to me, or a natural part of my own mental or spiritual processes, until I had children and began to understand that I wasn't just a parent. I was, by default, a role model.

Scary thought. Humbling thought.

Not only did I want to be a good example to my children, but when I received Christ as my Savior, I wanted to embody the love and compassion that Jesus showed to those around Him. I also took some cues from my husband, who is very empathic and knows how to make people feel comfortable around him. I learned how to leave my comfort zone of shy self-absorption, and engage with others. I started small, very small- by making eye contact, and smiling.

That wasn't so difficult.

Even so, it was a few years before I developed the habit of open-faced friendliness, and being able to naturally say something cheerful or encouraging. The more I practiced, the more instinctive it became, and the more I actively looked for ways to connect with people- was there a short lady (well, shorter than I am, which is saying something) reaching for something on a high shelf? The young mother struggling with a couple of rambunctious kids, the boy who seems to be looking for his mom or dad, the teenager who appears frustrated... is there something I can do or say to show them that someone else notices, someone else cares?

Many times I've seen the spark that a smile, kind word, or an offer of help, lights in the eyes of those around me, whom I do not know or may never seen again. I hope that when they went home, they felt just a little bit better about things.

Pioneer Village, Caesar Creek Ohio
Pioneer Village, Caesar Creek Ohio

These principles came to mind again the other day, as I stood watching a volunteer at Pioneer Village give a talk about life during the Civil War era. I smiled, asked questions, and made sure that my face reflected the interest that I felt. But what if I was a person who wasn't all that interested? What if the volunteer was boring, unprepared, or needing another cup of coffee before their brain kicked into gear? Could my attitude, the expression on my face, encourage this person and help them be their best?

To do unto others as I would wish them to do...

I've been in situations where I had to speak to groups of people, both large and small, strangers and friends, formal and informal. I always look for those who have a lively, interested look on their face. They help me stay focused- they become my target audience. They bring out the best in me by showing that they want me to succeed, because they have come for something that they want as well. And so we have both engaged in the ethics of reciprocity.

Can we show our kids that in every situation, we can be a blessing to others just by smiling and being pleasant? By exercising empathy in a way that brings joy to others, and in so doing, to ourselves? That by being our best, we can bring out the best in those around us?

This is as valuable a lesson as any our children will ever learn from their math or science books. As parents, homeschooling or otherwise, our children see us act and react in various situations. These are crucial teaching moments, the moments that may have eternal impact, in the lives of our kids. May we not forget, in the midst of the busyness or the mundane, to model the The Great Commandment.