I learned a powerful lesson about happiness from my 13 year old son.
We were driving home from a doctor’s appointment and out of nowhere he said, “I feel bad for stingrays.”
He had once seen stingrays at our local science museum and so I figured he was talking about how terrible it is that the stingrays are captives, unable to swim in the ocean away from the little kids that reach their hands into the display to try and grab at them.
But he had a very different take.
“I feel bad for the stingrays. They’re always smiling, but only because they have to. They’re probably sad and no one even knows.”
Do a quick google search of stingrays and you’ll see what he means. They have these goofy grins making them look like they’re gently smiling at the world, happily gliding through the water. Their faces are frozen in place like Wybie in Coraline. They look like that all the time, but it isn’t a “real” smile. After all, the stingray that killed Steve Irwin was also “smiling.”
My son’s words were poetic and tragic, providing a telling insight into his own life and into the world around him. So many people we encounter – who smile and smile – do so not always because they are truly happy, but because they have no choice. They put their smile out there for everyone to see, to keep people at bay, to not have to deal with the inquiring minds or the nagging questions. It’s so much easier to paint on the smile and let the world assume that everything is good. Everything is fine.
Maybe the lesson of the stingrays is to keep smiling regardless of your circumstances. Even if you’re trapped in a museum getting grabbed at by screeching toddlers and their parents. Even if you’re confined and unable to swim out to your ocean. It’s the smile of inner strength and fortitude.
Or maybe the lesson of the stingray is a complex lesson about our own interpersonal relationships, the reminder that we shouldn’t take the outward smiles for granted and make assumptions. Everyone carries pain. Some are just better at hiding it. Some are better at keeping the grin plastered forever, swimming in the stifling environment of the man-made tide pool, burying the anguish behind sad eyes that no one notices. Not all who smile are happy.
More than likely it’s both those lessons.
I have told my children that it is important to not let pain or tragedy define who they are. To not let it become their identity. And so that means that they must endeavor, even in times of difficulty, to find something to smile about, to find things to celebrate, or they will have no choice but to stay in bed, eat chocolate, and succumb to the darkness that is everywhere. It’s a philosophy that is easy to preach, but difficult to practice and they sometimes get angry when I try and spin things to the positive. I know there are times I also want to just wallow in the bad and lash out at positivity and silver-linings. And I often do. Which is why the second lesson is so important as well. Having been touched by pain, it is also our job to look beyond the smiles. To recognize that all who smile are carrying burdens we know nothing about. To be there for them, to open the door, to let them know, “It’s okay, you don’t have to smile all the time. I know what it’s like.”
Recently, my son had a bad reaction to anesthesia from an MRI and wound up damaging his eye. He was in pain and couldn’t see for two days. His eyes were bandaged Birdbox style and I joked with him that we would reenact scenes from that movie until his eyes were better. He asked me to take a picture so that he could see what he looked like and I did, thinking it would just be a picture for him alone. But looking at it now, it’s remarkable. He was in a lot of pain and was scared, but you wouldn’t know it. He was smiling.
It was a smile of strength. It was the smile of the stingray.