I rode a jeepney in Manila the other day. That’s certainly nothing to smile about. Slow, crowded public transportation. Squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip and thigh-to-thigh with total strangers. The roof was too low, so my neck was bent over. Polluted air, stifling hot, was swirling around us. I was on my way to the largest mall in Asia to get online and to check the stores there for a fancy shirt to wear to my daughter’s upcoming wedding. Thinking of her made me smile.
Next to me on the jeep was a young woman with a baby on her lap. I expected to smile as I glanced at her child. (I’m a little more into babies now that I have a grandson, you see.) As my eyes landed on her son I saw that he had a terribly disfigured face. Hare lip and deformed nose, pointy teeth sticking out in all the wrong directions. It was even more startling, as he was nibbling on a sticky rice treat without an upper lip. I looked away quickly, trying to hide my reaction, my smile fading immediately.
I felt terrible, but I was unable engage normally with the little guy. I felt ashamed and shallow. I knew it was only too obvious that my reaction was to turn away.
I smiled to myself, but only to remember how my daughter and her friends wore stained and crooked Billy Bob teeth at a mall once. They watched how guys would check out the cute young girls from behind or from the side and then quickly avert their gaze when they saw the teeth. That was funny, but it was only a temporary situation. Make believe. Those teeth could be removed and the girls were beautiful again. Then I thought of the young mother beside me and my smile faded. What must it be like for everyone to turn away from your child, trying to hide their revulsion? And for that baby, how would life be growing up and having everyone avoid making eye contact with you, looking horrified, and never smiling at you unless they were cruelly laughing? I thought of how everyone smiles at my grandson and talks sweetly to him, telling him he’s cute, making him smile back. But who would ever make that boy on the jeepney smile?
Looking down at my shuffling feet, I thought of Operation Smile and other charities that do surgeries here for free to repair hare lips and cleft palates and I gained a whole new insight into what it must mean for someone like that young mother and her child. It would not merely alter this child’s appearance by putting a smile on his face surgically. It would completely change who he was. He would become a completely different person. It would change how everyone interacted with him. It would put joy and confidence in his heart by making others smile at him. I quietly prayed that someday that transformation might become reality for the little guy.
A little later, over lunch, I thought of how different the world would be if we didn’t interact based almost exclusively on appearance, externals. What if we could all treat each other as human beings of intrinsic value and worth? What if we didn’t value some people more because they were beautiful on the outside?
That made me smile.
(This continues to be one of my most popular posts. Please comment and tell me how you found it… Pinoy ba kayo? Have you ever had a similar experience? How can we learn to get past such external responses? You might also enjoy my post An Old Man’s iPod, Freshly-Pressed in March 2011)