life is good?

He told me that I should smile. Jerked out of my meditative state, I glanced up from the pavement where I was watching my feet go step by step in the puddles, and thinking about my kid on his first day of school. Who was this stranger? What was he trying to prove by saying that I should smile? My pensive face reflexively cracked, my lips parting in a sour crescent barely enough to flash a bit of tooth. He was satisfied. “Life’s not that bad,” he said, and went on his merry way.

I wondered how this guy thought he was the authority on how life is good—a live version of that annoying, smiley-faced stick-figure plastered on pastel t-shirts and coffee mugs shown playing golf, surfing, mountain-biking. And I realized how often we project ourselves onto others rather than stepping back to absorb their realities, imagining theirs as our own. And as I contemplated this man’s demand while I walked Rudy home through sprinkling rain, a stream of consciousness washed over me, and I asked myself these questions:

Would that man have told me to smile if he’d known my kid might have just suffered a seizure? Would that woman have called the homeless person a bum and stepped over his crumpled body on her way to get a latte had she once lost her job, her family, her home, her everything? Would that other man have called his assertive coworker a bitch if he’d been a woman earning just three-quarters of her colleague’s pay? Would that man have said what he said—believed what he believes—had his own wife been raped and gotten pregnant? Would the people denying those genocides find the truth if their religion—their people—had been persecuted for centuries? Would the men and women who oppose same-sex marriage feel differently if they had beloved friends or family who are gay? Would that man feel differently about racial profiling if his demographic was the one society unjustly targeted to the point of near epidemic incarceration? Would the person who thinks “everyone for themselves” feel differently if their child became gravely ill or was denied coverage then couldn’t afford the treatment?

I rolled these queries—these images—around in my head and wondered why so many of our hearts are hardened to the plight of others less privileged. Why are we so suspicious, so fearful, so ugly and hateful, so hell-bent on hoarding the American Dream? I wish we could all walk in each others shoes, not for a mile but for a time and—at the very least—step out of our own and stand barefoot, truly witnessing what it is to be human, to be uncomfortable, to be vulnerable, to understand that life is not always good for everyone, even though it might be good for us.
Wouldn’t a smile from that man have been enough?
I thought. No. He felt he had to go and tell me that I should smile without even knowing who I was or what I was all about.

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photo by Michael Kolster


  1. I sort of, kind of have a parallel post today! Are you sure we're not twins?

  2. You got it right. A simple smile please.