Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, June 24, 2018

While I was at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver’s license, I had an anxiety attack when the woman sat me down in front of the notorious DMV camera that takes pictures everyone hates because the lens, I’m convinced, is defective. Even a normal person can end up looking like Miley Cyrus with her tongue wagging like an excited Chihuahua.

My wife, who’s always ready to offer commentary and advice, said, “Stop frowning for a change and smile.”

The problem is I was born with a frown on my face, so it takes twice as much effort for me to smile as for a normal person.

After the woman snapped the photo, she asked, “Do you want to see it?”

“Sure,” I said, hesitantly. Every time I see a photo of myself I get distraught and start to wonder: Am I really getting old? Should I dye what hair I have left? Why can’t I have one of those big toothy smiles like Christie Brinkley or George Clooney? What’s wrong with me?

I glanced at her computer screen and saw what looked like a police mug shot after a drunken brawl on a Friday night.

“Let’s try again,” I said, and sat down. You have only so many chances to get it right. What came out the second time was a little better, although I seemed to be smirking more than smiling. It was apparent that smiling doesn’t come easily for me.

I took the license, thanked her and left, vowing never to look at my driver’s license except under penalty of detainment by the TSA while I’m going through airport security. Smiling: what good is it anyway?

My father used to have a bumper sticker on the back of his van with one of those smiley faces that proclaimed, “Smile, God loves you!” and whenever the occasion permitted, he would tell us, “Smile, God loves you!” especially in our unhappy moments.

That was easy for him to believe. After years of troubled drinking, he found Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober through the grace of God and lived the last 25 years of his life with the assurance that God loved him and watched over him. The program also taught him to live a day at a time and to remember, as the Psalmist said, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.”

I’ve come to believe that a smile, a kind word and a laugh or two is Christ in action. Such simple gestures can have enormous benefits that we won’t begin to understand until we meet Jesus face-to-face and have our life review and learn just how much good came from acts of kindness, compassion and concern.

At the same time, I’ve seen how destructive a frown can be. Misery loves company, as my mother always said, and some people take delight in spreading it. Group grumbling is an American pastime at work, at play, in coffee klatches and around the dinner table, but it can be corrosive to our spiritual life.

One receptionist I occasionally encounter spreads more negativity than talk radio. She, like me, must have been born with a frown on her face because it never goes away.

This woman, I’m convinced, gets pleasure from frowning, and when you enter the office, she’ll grunt and sneer just enough to make you want to turn around and run in the opposite direction. Whenever I have to deal with her, I leave an angry man.

When I was taking a college calculus course, which gave me a lot of reasons to be miserable, there was a nun in the class who was always smiling, and my friend would snicker, “She was probably born with that smile on her face.”

The passage of years and far too many encounters with nasty people make me wish that that nun were around today because there’s a shortage of joy and laughter in the world. And joy is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Where there is joy, there is the Holy Spirit.

Complaining, on the other hand, takes a toll on you, spiritually and physically. A study at Stanford University’s School of Medicine found that negativity stresses the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that controls different functions. Being around nasty people, research shows, disrupts connections in the brain and kills off neurons.

So stay away from me if you’re a natural-born frowner. I want to associate with people who find joy and peace amid the wreckage of life. Give me the people struggling to smile.

The author of Proverbs said, “A happy heart makes the face cheerful.” And he was right. Of course, the source of all happiness is Christ, himself, and doing God’s will, which, as they say in 12-step programs, means “Letting go and letting God.”

Actually, I feel so inspired, I might go back and see if the DMV will take my photo again. This time I’ll force myself to smile, even if I look a little goofy.

J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.