Beyond the Smile

This is something I recently wrote for Binah magazine. Enjoy.

A few weeks ago I returned home from our local Shabbos class in an incredibly rotten mood. Ironically, the topic was being happyThe speaker, a dynamic young woman with a bouncy blonde wigand a sparkling, picture-perfect smile, bubbled effusively, “Our faces are reshus harabbim. They are public property. When you smile, the whole world smiles with you, but when you look glum, it negatively impacts those around you.”

Yes, I’ve heard this idea a million times. And I know that it’s true. Our emotions are contagious.

I can almost hear you asking the obvious question. If this is something the author believes to be true and has heard many times before, then why did hearing it at a shiur have such a negative effect on her?


Simple. People with Parkinson’s (like me) often develop what’s known as the Parkinson’s mask. That’s because their facial muscles sometimes become so stiff that they follow gravity in a downward spiral. And when that happens, unless they are consciously concentrating on putting on a cheerful countenance to the world, their mouths slide into a frown and they look, well, sad, or (even worse), spaced out. So when I am concentrating on something, be it on my writing, or my exercise, or even figuring out how to navigate Yerushalayim’s crowded streets, my mouth gets droopy, or, even more embarrassing, drops opens (without my even noticing it) and I look, well, not at all like the intelligent, thinking woman I aspire to be.

It’s frustrating. According to what I just wrote, if you see me sitting on the bus looking deep in thought, chances are that I’m just worried about my appearance, but if I look totally spaced out, then probably my mind is busy conjuring up ideas for my next article, or I’m solving some weighty worldwide crisis. 

Although I don’t want to confuse you, in truth it’s not so simple. Parkinson’s is one of those crazy on-off diseases. So although at times, I can be perfectly fine and look like the picture of good health, I can just as suddenly turn “off” and become incapable of doing almost anything, including smiling. So that means that when I appear to be an intelligent woman deep in thought, I might actually be thinking about something important, rather than concentrating and looking intelligent, but then again, I might not, and when I appear to be spaced out, I might (figuratively) be landing on the moon, but then again, it’s very possible that my feet are firmly on the ground.

So now that you understand (or, admit it, you really don’t. But I won’t tell anyone) why a class on being happy put me in a bad mood, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: It didn’t last long. A Shabbos nap, a bit of ice cream (the panacea for all problems) and I was back to my jolly old self —- even if I couldn’t maintain a Colgate smile.

As I write this, I am trying to think of what deep message I can impart to my reader. And the truth is, I can’t think of anything incredibly profound, other than the obvious: “Donot look at the vessel but at what is in it.” Looks can be deceiving. It’s a person’s essence that counts.

And as for the importance of smiling, yes, I agree it’s a good thing, and I will, if I can. But if I can’t, I won’t. But I’ll be more than happy to talk with you, and encourage you, and pray for you — and even more than that, I’ll try to be your friend. I’ll be there for you, in a real, way. And isn’t that what’s really important, even if I can’t always brighten the lives of those around me with a happy smile?