Jeff Lucas shares a moving story from the second world war
Smiling doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not Victor Meldrew with a Bible, a practised misery with facial features permanently arranged in a gloomy scowl. And I don’t see life as a safari, ever hunting for more opportunities to frown.
It’s just that my smile is somewhat lopsided, which makes me self-conscious.
I blame my mother, and not just for bequeathing me her genes. Sending me on a childhood shopping errand, she provided a carrier bag that got tangled in the front wheels of my bike. This enabled me to fly right over the handlebars. Landing with a crunch that gifted me with a nose that can see around corners, I have been cursed with a wonky grin ever since. Not only does this mean that I get nervous when having my photo taken, but it has also provoked some interesting conversations when I flash my crooked grin in public.
‘Jeff, may I ask, have you ever had a stroke?’ asked one forthright lady after I’d delivered a sermon (which was probably not about thoughtfulness and tact).
‘I haven’t,’ I replied, confused. ‘Why do you ask?’
Perhaps sensing what was to come, I inwardly wrestled with the temptation to say that I was just seriously ugly, and ask her what her excuse was, which would have been enjoyable but most unChristian. And so I remained silent.
Her reply was swift and blunt. ‘It’s just that when you smile, only one side of your face goes up.’ My distorted features collapsed into a frown. Robin has no such hesitation about smiling. Distinguished and dapper in his blazer and tie, he was the official photographer for a church anniversary weekend where I was the guest speaker. We didn’t know anybody at the church, and felt the wintry draught of being the strangers at the party, but when Robin greeted us, the sun came out. His consistent grin was broad, cheeky and utterly welcoming. So bright was his smile, that I asked him about it. He explained that, for him, a warm smile is not just a response to something good, but a daily choice, regardless.
He explained. ‘Years ago, I was sitting in a barber’s shop which was opposite a church building. As the Christians emerged from their weekly Bible study, everyone in the barbers remarked that they didn’t want to be like those dour church folks with their vinegary, holier-than-thou expressions. Listening to the murmuring that day, I made a choice. I decided, as a follower of Jesus myself, that I would smile.’ And so he does. A lot.
Now don’t think that Robin is a superficial soul, or someone for whom life has been easy to the point of seeming unfair. On the contrary; he lost his beloved wife of 58 years, Joan, just three years ago, after her decade-long battle with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. And his daughter Celia suffered a brain tumour at the age of 22, just after she qualified to be a nurse. A brilliant young woman, now she is confined by the full-time residential care that her condition demands. Robin hasn’t been spared the winters of life. But he has decided to choose his attitude, daily. And in about two seconds, that choice made us feel completely at home.
The tiniest actions change the world. Noticing. Saying please. Listening. Tipping a little extra. Paying a genuine compliment. Helping a lost tourist. Apologising quickly. Encouraging people and being specific about it – not just saying, ‘Well done!’, but saying what was well done.
Sending a handwritten note. And yes, offering a smile. And perhaps pausing for thought before we ask potentially offensive questions, like the unsubtle enquiry about my stroke.
Of course, the dear lady meant no ill, and to her credit, as soon as the words tumbled out of her mouth she realised that her question and comment might be a little rude. I was about to smile to reassure her, but refrained. My attempt at a warm grin might have prompted her to dial 999 and summon an ambulance.