Even before the pandemic, I sometimes went days—weeks—without interacting with another adult who was not my husband or one of my psychotherapy clients. On the coldest winter days, even the neighbors I sometimes chatted with, met to walk dogs with, or invited over for a quick coffee would hole up and disappear. We’d call or text each other: “When it gets warm, let’s walk.” “When this snow melts …” “When our kids’ college visits are over …” But even then, life sometimes got in the way.
I am a therapist and a writer. My work is isolating, solitary, one-sided. Because I see people professionally, most of whom I truly enjoy, because I am fortunate enough to have a husband who is fun as well as kind, I sometimes get to the point of starving for my friends before I even notice I’m hungry.
The thing that sustains me, the thing that I would argue sustains anyone whose life is sparsely populated, are the daily, incidental interactions with strangers or lightly known acquaintances. A conversation at the grocery store with the young mother who’s trying to shop while managing unruly toddlers. I assure her that it gets better, that my kids were the same at that age. A brief lesson on drain-snaking from the friendly guy who runs the hardware store. A shared laugh with another dog parent as our pups become leash-tangled in effort to sniff one another’s rear ends.
As a sometime introvert, an only child who can tolerate solitude better than most, I once found these social exchanges sufficient to get me through a week. Now they fall short for one reason.
The smiles are gone, concealed by masks. With only your eyes showing, the crinkles at the corners are all I have to guess your mood, your level of appreciation for my dog’s silly antics, whether your return of my greeting is forced or genuine.
In Charles Darwin’s 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the naturalist describes smiling as something universal to humans across societies, a muscular effort that unites us regardless of creed, class, or culture. Innumerable songs have been written about smiles: whether you’re never fully dressed without one, whether Irish eyes are doing it, or whether the whole world is doing it with you. The first time a baby smiles, it’s nothing short of magic. As much of a puzzle as your newborn’s crying may be—is she gassy? Cold? Wet? Hungry? But an infant’s smile is unequivocal. It says, “I love you.” “I’m happy to be here.” Smiles are versatile little buggers too: We share them, interpret them, grant them to others, and welcome them. Sure, sometimes we fake them, misconstrue them, try to hide them when they emerge at inappropriate moments. But our smiles are always beacons of ourselves. They’re emotional bridges, making us feel seen, acknowledged. When one person returns your smile, it gives you a boost. When another fails to do so, it hurts.
But now when we pass each other on the street, when we come face to face at the grocery store (meaning one of us has neglected to observe the now-fading arrows on the floor), we do so devoid of affect, cut off from one another. We are all masked islands amid the sea of Covid-19. Without in-person smiles, we are starving for one another. I see it in myself, my teenage children, especially in those of my clients who live alone and work from home. We must all toe the line on Zoom-contact, a poor substitute for the three-dimensional expressions we once took for granted.
In my Facebook feed, I recently saw an add selling facemasks with zany smiles painted right on. They were meant to be funny, to compensate for the current lack of in-person grins. But even the reactions these decorative smirks might provoke would be hidden.
People talk about what they miss about their pre-Covid lives: the travel, the visits with loved ones, the hugs, the movie houses. What I miss most of all are the incidental connections with strangers, reminding me that we’re all in this crazy thing called life together.
Maya Angelou once said, “if you only have one smile in you, give it to the people you love.” I would add that a smile from a stranger just might unearth one you didn’t realize you had to share.