The Duty to Smile

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Repost 2014

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

Here’s some advice I got many years ago from my grandfather, purveyor of wisdom and writer of handwritten letters to his young grandson:

…One of the most important things you will do every day of your life is leave the world a better place than you found it. If you can say at the end of each day you lightened someone’s burden, you can say more than most. Our world has come to worship the Ego, the unholy trinity of me, my and mine. “I” is the new Tower of Babel. But you have to be better, Tommy. Take the road less traveled … You’ll always have reasons to complain or be bitter. Save those for God or a trusted friend. Don’t poison the air. Be known as “that man who lifts you up” and not as “that man who brings you down.” … Cynics take pleasure in dashing others’ hope to medicate their own misery and despair, for misery does love company. But the wise man takes pleasure in helping others exit the Cave of shadows to find hope … To make the world better you don’t have to feel like making it better. Just do better. You’ll get it back a hundredfold … Helping others find their way you possess a wealth far surpassing self-esteem. You possess self-respect …

When I recently read this article on the Jewish Talmud by Dennis Prager, I found the resonance remarkable…

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.

The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act.

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

For whatever reason, this is the song that comes to mind now — below the video are the lyrics:

Here under heaven’s eyes
Down under paradise
Sometimes it seems like we’re so small
Here on the shores that reach into infinity

How could we matter much at all?
Would it be enough
If each of us would give our love?

Like sand on a mountain
Rain on a fountain
Shade on a shadow
A breeze in this tornado

Just do what you can
Clap with one hand
And shine all your light in the sun
We live to learn to love

Oh, mercy from above
Amazing grace, like rain comes falling down
We sing our hearts to you
Our song of gratitude

The voice of every soul
How sweet the sound
We can only trust
All our prayers will all add up

Like sand on a mountain
Rain on a fountain
Shade on a shadow
A breeze in this tornado

Just do what you can
Clap with one hand
And shine all your light in the sun
Would it be enough

If each of us would give our love?
Like sand on a mountain
Rain on a fountain
Shade on a shadow
A breeze in this tornado

Just do what you can
Clap with one hand
And shine all your light in the sun

4 comments on “The Duty to Smile

  1. Ben Patterson says:

    Great post. Thanks Tom!

  2. Pat Halsch says:

    Excellent reminder. Thank you for sharing.

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