It was a stunningly beautiful Florida morning. As I write the chapter about emotions in my latest book, The Quest, three events of interest captured my attention. I might note that I have determined—in my quest to enjoy life—to give the gift of a warm smile to everyone I encounter. Fortunately, I do not have to wear a mask while running since we have enough room to give everyone a social distance of six feet.
About four miles into the run on the Pinellas Trail, I saw a baby carriage far ahead. Usually, it is a senior adult strolling with their puppy. But today, the frantic screaming of a baby pierced the air. Drawing closer, I could tell the baby was past the anger stage and well into a heightened rage—its shrieks were interrupted only by gags brought on by the intensity of its furor.
The mother was casually strolling as if nothing was happening. As I drew to about twenty yards, she gently lifted the baby out of the carriage, its face contorted into a scowl, jaw clenched, swollen red face, tears streaming, and gasping for air between wails. She placed the child—a little boy with long black curly hair who looked to be about two years old—on the trail so that he could walk beside her.
The affect was striking. The cries immediately stopped as an escape from the stroller instantly triggered a relaxed smile of contentment that transformed the child’s features as if by a miracle. As I passed, they walked together hand in hand. There was no clue of the storm of rage that was present a few seconds before except for the flush receding from the face.
I was struck by the fact that throughout the entire adventure, the rage had not triggered anger in the mother—on the contrary, it seemed to trigger her instinct to impede or minimize the affect that was causing her child discomfort. I smiled at the mother and gave her a thumbs up. She returned the smile, shook her head, and said, “It’s been an exciting morning.” I said, resuming my running, “Yes, I’ve been there—twice.” She gave me an empathic look.
Why do some parents react with anxiety, disgust, shame, or rage during an event like this? While others respond calmly and methodically like this Mom?
A mile or so later, as I approached Main Street Dunedin, a short, somewhat overweight Hispanic lady approached me at the crossing lane with her head down. I looked at her face, and she sensed it and tentatively glanced up. I gave her a smile, and after a millisecond pause, she returned it immediately. I could see the smile in her face and eyes.
We were both jogging, so the affective exchange lasted only a few seconds. But I couldn’t help think of the many Hispanic people that pass me on the trail, many of them on bicycles heading to work, head down, shoulders slumped, unseeing.
I can’t help but wonder—the way America has treated Hispanic people, particularly the past three years—how often they encounter a look of disgust rather than a warm smile because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity. Much like I do—now that I wear a mask when going out in public to the grocery store. And probably from the same type of angry, fearful, anxious, and shame-filled people.
Despite growing up in a hyper-racist environment, time, and culture, somehow, I have always tried my best to look and treat everyone as equal human beings. Sure, some have varying skin pigmentation, but we are all a vital and meaningful part of humanity. Unfortunately, many people do not treat others who are different equally. As for me, my smiles are handed out similarly, regardless of gender, race, body shape, age, or physical ability.
The third encounter was a mile or so later at another crossing. I approached a homeless man organizing his ancient grocery cart of belongings. His shoulders were slumped, his head down and averted, and his body pointed away from the trail. His odor was distinct as I grew closer, and as I gave him the courtesy of a six-foot distance, I tried to catch his eye. He would not (or could not) raise his face.
As my pace separated us, he cursed loudly, but not at me. He was swearing at something he needed for his cart. But I could not help but think that my attempt to engage him triggered his anger, fear, anxiety, and shame—he wanted me to understand to stay away from him in the future. And he probably has discovered the best deterrent to people is avoiding eye contact, talking loudly to himself, smelling bad, and loudly peppering his language with curse words.
As I write these words, I am enthralled by the variety of emotional affects one can encounter over a six-mile walk/run. I am convinced a life without emotion would be sterile and meaningless. And I am grateful that offering the simple gift of a smile opens up a vast array of emotional responses. Paying attention to where I am, being fully conscious, being fully present, bestows rewards I am just beginning to understand and accept as I resolve to enjoy the second half of life.