There’s a TV ad for an antidepressant that features a paper plate on a popsicle-stick handle with a smiley face sketched on it… Various people are holding it up in front of their faces, which (behind the paper-plate-smiles) are unhappy, disengaged, or entirely expressionless.
That ad speaks not only to the experience of Depression, but also to an odd aspect of our culture. It’s somehow unacceptable to show anything other than the smiley-face, isn’t it?
In that ad, the people only tuck the paper-plate facade into pockets or purses after they have their own smiles back in place.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I also notice that all of these people keep their paper-plate smiles close at hand. One tucks the stick-handle into her pocket, another into the strings of his apron while he barbecues, others tuck them into outer pockets of handbag and briefcase. One of them fingers the plate as she walks away, not unlike a smoker patting a pocket to assure herself of the presence of her cigarette pack.
In addition to its inferred promise that it will put my own smile back, this ad tells me that no matter what’s going on, I’d better face forward with a smile of some kind.
Our false smiles (whether or not they’re sketched on paper plates) are like security blankets—we don’t dare show ourselves without them. Why is that? Why are we so conditioned not to let stress or worry show, not to answer the question “How are you?” with anything but a variation of “Fine“?
I’m wondering what we fear about letting our faces be real.
After my hospitalization last fall in a mental health facility, I made it a point to take a moment to think, and to answer honestly, whenever someone asked how I was doing. I made it a point not to say “Fine,” even in moments when I was fine. And that little project involved more work than just coming up with useful synonyms for “Fine”—it made me take a look at my mood and mental health every time I was asked the question. I was (figuratively speaking) leaving my paper-plate-smile at home and facing the world bare-faced, even when my mind and mood were messy.
So what did I learn? A few things. I learned that even though the how-you’re-doing question is really just one of our culture’s ways of saying “Hello,” people will listen to the answer, and care. And I learned that plenty of people actually do ask the question because they want to know. I learned that there are lots of useful synonyms for “Fine,” and it’s okay to use them when they’re true. And I learned that even in an emotionally messy time in my life, I still had lots of reasons to consider myself to be “Fine.”
I don’t use that word now, though. I may have slipped back into using a default word to answer that question most times, but it’s a different word. Now I answer (and this is always true) that I’m “Blessed.”
Among other things, I’m Blessed to have some pharmaceutical help for mental health. Although I’m not smiling every minute, I’m Blessed that my smiles are real ones, smiles of my own. And I’m Blessed to have in my corner not just Pharmacy, but also Faith.
You make known to me the path of Life; You fill me with joy in Your presence. ~Psalm 16:11
Today, paper plates are for breakfast…
and for practicing my fishing-cast…
and for target practice with the rifle.
Not for hiding behind.