“The story of a man who took his own life, attributed to Dr. Jerome Motto, a psychiatrist from UCSF, and dated only as being in the 1970s, is particularly haunting. “‘The guy was in his 30s,’ Motto related, ‘lived alone. Pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I won’t jump.'”
From a Vice article of stories of suicide from The Golden Gate Bridge.
You just never know, do you, what’s going on for other people? That person who just rudely cut you off in traffic may be on the way to the neonatal ICU to be with his daughter one last time – if he can make it before she passes. They said it could be any minute. That cashier who isn’t really paying attention to you maybe has rent due and she’s short, and this’ll be the third time and her landlord’s told her he is going to evict her and her daughter. And that’ll be $12.07. Or that random stranger on the street who looks in your eye for a moment. Looking for some sign that he’s not absolutely alone and invisible. But we don’t know that. We just never know.
It’s more than likely that that rude person who cut you off is actually just rude. Or… lost in his thoughts and not really paying as much attention as usual. It’s more than likely that your smile to a stranger won’t change their action plan for suicide because the thought never even crossed their mind. They’re thinking about their childhood friend who just died and you remind them sort of. Or whether they have all the ingredients at home for dinner. We just never know.
And it’s not like we should go around pushing smiles at people like lifeguards throwing psychic liferings at everyone whether they need one or not. Part of the art of compassion is being connected to the present state of the other person. But of course, we never can really know. Pro-tip, tho: don’t attempt to generate smiles by telling others to smile. Never works. Totally rude and will almost always backfire as an attempt to generate kindness.
Genuine smiles are like momentary magic spells that shift the energy for a moment in the space between two humans. They remind ourselves and the world that people are good, despite all the evidence we constantly see to the contrary.
It can be a little challenging to smile at strangers. We’re taught to be wary of everyone. And it seems like things are getting more and more dangerous “out there.” It’s really important to follow your instincts when you feel like a situation or person is unsafe. And sometimes if your energy level is a big mis-match with the person you’re smiling at, YOU might be the person being perceived as unsafe in that situation.
But for the rest of the time, here’s an easy way to genuinely smile at strangers. When you look at a stranger, from a place of wonder and curiosity – as if you know the answer is there and you just have to find it – ask yourself “what can I see about this person that is beautiful, admirable, inspiring, or tender?” and then smile at that part of them. Even better – tell them what you see.
Maybe it’ll brighten their day. Maybe it’ll save their life. You just never know.