“These are sooo good! Have you ever had them?” the man in front of me in line chattered and grinned as he purchased two nutrition bars. The first thing I had noticed about him as I walked up was that he clearly spent a lot of time outdoors, fitting since we were in an “outdoors store.” The second thing I noticed was that he was wearing shorts during the “Polar Vortex.” Brrrrr…
The first thing he had noticed about me, apparently, was my smile. “Great smile, you’ve got a great smile,” he kept repeating. And the second thing he had noticed was my nails, which were burgundy for the first time in my life, “Great nail polish. Great smile!”
“Thank you,” I said, uncharacteristically accepting rather than deflecting the compliments.
“My name is Ben,” he said.
“Well, hello Ben, I’m Hannah,” I replied.
“You really need to try these; these are such delicious bars. You know you’ve got beautiful eyes. Just look at those eyes.” The long string of compliments kept coming, dripping with innocent sincerity, and reminding me of my nephew in a chatty mood.
“Well, nice to meet you Ben,” I said as he finished his transaction and turned to leave.
“Wait,” he said, coming back “You’ve just got to try one of these. They are so delicious. They are cherry and chocolate. Just a minute.” He began to take one of the nutrition bars out of his bag and struggled to open it. “Hey buddy,” he addressed the cashier, “You got some scissors or something?” Begrudgingly, the cashier handed over some scissors and Ben gracefully snipped the package open, rather than struggling with his nails. Before I knew it, he had popped a piece in my mouth and I was agreeing that it was delicious.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” he said as he cheerfully, grinned a big toothless grin. Then hoisting his worldly possessions up onto his back, he started to walk out of the store. At the door he turned around – big grin framed by an unkempt beard; black boots rising up towards camo cut off shorts; tangled hair resting on the shoulders of his camo jacket; and kind eyes. “Have a nice day!” he called out. “You too,” I said. And with that, he opened the door and trekked back out into the frigid cold.
“I’m so sorry,” the cashier said, annoyed and embarrassed. “He’s one of our ‘regulars’,” his voice twisted the word that should have been a compliment into an insult; his tone the same used by the nurses at the hospital where I did CPE when what they called “frequent flyers” came into the Emergency Room.
My left eyebrow could not help but arch itself in unison with the right eyebrow’s dip. I considered the cashier before me and realized he was attempting to dispel what he considered to be an awkward moment by creating what I considered to be an awkward moment. He seemed to be under the impression that he had witnessed a conversation between an acceptable paying customer and an unacceptable houseless trespasser; a human being of sacred worth and someone slightly less than that.
His logic confused me because Ben was both a paying customer and a human being of sacred worth. Ben had just exhibited genuine kindness to me. He had paid me many sincere compliments in such an innocent manner that I was willing to receive them. And finally, he had opened up and shared with me what may very well have been his main meal for the day.
I wish I could tell you that I said all that, but I let the expression on my face do most of the talking. “You are blessed to have him as a regular. What a great guy!” I said. “He really made me miss some of the friends I went out with in Delaware.”
The cashier did not know what to say, and I left the store.
Walking across town, back to my sister’s house, I was conflicted. I was struggling with the cashier’s response, and how common it is, and how often I may have done the same thing. I was hoping Ben had a place to stay that was out of the cold. Yet, of any of us in that moment, Ben seemed in the least need of “fixing.” The influence of Ben’s cheerfulness was stronger than the worries on my troubled mind and I gave into it and smiled.
My smile was caught again, this time by Elder Christian and Elder Murrell, young gentlemen, straight out of the Book of Mormon musical, who wanted to know if I had heard about the true religion of Jesus. “Go for it!” I said cheerfully, adopting Ben’s friendly attitude, as a nervous Elder Murrell stammered and searched for words, taken aback by my enthusiasm. After a few minutes, we cheerfully parted ways after I confessed to being an Elder of another kind.
Cold wind cut through my scarf and up around the bottom of my blue jeans, but warmth flowed from inside. Walking on through the ‘Polar Vortex,’ I couldn’t help but wonder how compliments and attempts at conversion – things that usually would have brought up my walls like a booby trap in an Indiana Jones film – were instead bringing joy.
I asked God to show me what I was supposed to learn from this change of heart. Lots of thoughts flowed, but none of them seemed like the right one. Yes, all four of us – Ben, the Mormon Elders and I – were all friendly people, walking in a cold city. Whether by choice, calling or circumstance, none of us were returning to a traditional “home of our own.” Despite our difference we were people of sacred worth and worthy of respect.
It did not come to me until later, however, as I switched from the orange line to the red line on the Metro, the key to the puzzle was the thing that had brought us together.
We had all responded to the very human and unconscious invitation of a smile. Not a forced smile; not an ironic, sarcastic or sly grin; but an involuntary expression that wells up from something happening inside and bubbles onto your face as a smile.
When we know who we are, we are better able to know others. When we know that we are loved, it is easier to love others. When we can smile, it makes it easier for others to do so. The attitude that you walk around the world with affects more people than just you – your energy impacts everyone you encounter.
When you smile at another person, you remind them that they are worthy of love.
Mother Teresa said “Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at; do it for peace. Let us radiate the peace of God and so light His light and extinguish in the world and in the hearts of all men all hatred and love for power.”
Clad in military camo and inexplicably warm on such a cold day, Ben had the least but offered the most. He offered peace.