Hill: The parable of the secret weapon
Once upon a time there was a mountain village where the people lived happily. Some farmed, some came home from the farmers markets with straw baskets brimming with fragrant cheeses, breads, fruits and vegetables. It was the kind of town where it was not unusual for neighbors to bring each other fresh-picked flowers and homemade cakes.
The sun shone on the valley, streaming into the nooks and crannies of mountainsides. The woods were full of oaks and rhododendron, wild blueberries and blackberries. People jogged along the streets of the town. On Saturdays, families and friends would gather at the town square, laughing and sharing food on picnic blankets. Children jumped and yelped in water sprinklers while handsome firemen cleaned big red trucks in the fire station nearby.
Tree huggers got together and began putting small signs on special trees: the biggest trees, the oldest trees, the most unusual trees, the ones that had survived two world wars and years of blight, of beetle and bug and invisible pest. "Treasured Tree" the signs said, because the people felt it was important to name and signify and cherish what otherwise might go unnoticed.
The people relished gathering along Main Street to shop and sit on a bench together and eat ice cream, to stroll along the sidewalk eating a fresh cupcake. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder for public celebrations and parades at Christmas and the Fourth of July. Veterans were celebrated with salutes and flags and reverent faces at the annual parade.
In the winter when it was cold, the churches would open their doors to the homeless, giving them a warm place. The people banded together and helped other people build their own homes. They made a community table where anyone at all who was hungry could walk in and sit down to a healthy meal full of fresh vegetables and fruits and breads. Around those tables there would be smiles, a gentle hand on the shoulder, warm hugs.
One hundred women in the town banded together, organized themselves and continually planted flowers and flowering bushes all around the town. Along well-traveled roads and in the parts seldom scene, where you would least expect it, there would be the brilliant face of a flower planted by a volunteer on bended knee who returned again and again to water and prune and weed. Just for the beauty of it. For the good feeling that comes from knowing that this one thing that you've chosen to do might bring a lighter heart to someone else, to a stranger passing by, to someone who does not know where to turn nor what to do.
Then there came to the town a terrible plague. It did not happen one day: It was happening slowly around them while they were not looking. As villagers began showing up at hospitals gasping and unable to breathe, the doctors and nurses turned to the scientists.
The scientists studied the plague under their microscopes, then they looked up and, with great sadness, told the people what it was.
"A parasite has come to our village," the scientists said. "There are so many of them that they outnumber us. There are more of them than we can count. Without a microscope, you will not see them. They can come, invisibly, into your body through the air breathed out by an infected person. If your fingers touch one of the invisible parasites and then you touch your eyes or your mouth or your nose, that is another way they can enter your body.
"Each parasite has a hook, and once it lodges in your cells, it multiplies. You might not know if you are infected or not, which makes each one of you a danger to each other.
"Therefore, since you don't know who is infected, you should not touch nor hug each other any longer. You should not leave your homes. If you must leave your homes to get food, then you should wear a mask and you should not stand within 10 feet of each other so that you don't infect each other. You should wear a mask whenever you go outside of your house, even if you are feeling healthy."
And the people were rightly afraid. They went inside their homes and stayed there, staring at their computers and their smart phones and their laptops, waking terrified each morning to hear the death count and studying digital maps to see where the parasite plague had spread, and whether it had reached their village or not.
They no longer saw each other in the Town Square or on the street. They no longer looked each other in the eye because they secretly hoped to get more groceries than their neighbor.
Because they were wearing masks, they could not see each other's faces, and that made them view each other as strangers, as bandits.
And they were miserable.
The secret weapon
Slowly, ever so slowly, the people began to realize how much a human being needs to see another human face. They came to see that each human face is a piece of living art, full of hope and desire and dreams. Each human face is a star as brilliant and necessary as the stars in the heavens.
Even though many of the people had lost their jobs and were worried about having enough food, worried about paying the rent or the mortgage, worried about taking care of their loved ones, they begin to realize that they had one phenomenal asset. They begin to realize that they had in their possession, each one of them, an endless supply of one necessary and free thing that they could give each other: a smile.
They realized they could plant and harvest smiles. There was no cost for this agriculture. It created no pollution. It had no toxic by-products. And each person possessed the raw materials and the energy to create and give away hundreds of smiles each day.
And so the people began to give this free, abundant gift to each other. They smiled and waved from 30 feet apart on the opposite side of the street. They smiled and waved from their cars. They smiled in the grocery store and in the hardware store, and even if they were wearing a mask, you could see their eyes smiling. Even though they could not touch each other with their hands, they could touch each other with a smile.
Some of the people frowned when their neighbors began to smile. They thought the whole gesture was irreverent. They thought it was silly.
But, in time, The doctors and nurses began to notice a real change. They saw that each smile lifted the spirits of two people to start with, but then lifted the spirits of the people that those two people told about the smiles.
And then the scientists, too, began to notice something. They concluded that each smile was a crack in the armor of every parasite because each smile replaced the sense of fear with the sense of love. The scientists and sociologists and psychologists and doctors and nurses unanimously agreed that all the smiling was igniting and revitalizing the immune system of each person.
For the rest of that year as the parasite did its worst, the people followed the medical precautions about health safety while they continued infecting each other with smiles. As the parasite morphed and changed shape so that the new medicines would not recognize it, the people invented more types of smiles. They discovered the slight upward turn of one side of the mouth, they discovered the grin, some of them discovered that they had dimples they’d never seen before. They found smiles showing some teeth and smiles showing no teeth. They discovered the twinkle in the eye when the lips aren't moving.
When it was over
At the end of the year, they made a fire pit in the Town Square and gathered together for a big Grief Circle. The drummers drummed and the dancers danced and the pipers played, and then they sat, legs and arms touching, on the ground and spoke the name of those they loved who had died from the plague. They looked into each other's faces across the warm firelight and spoke of their losses and wept together. Perfect strangers hugged each other and held onto each other. They all slept well that night.
And the next morning and for the rest of their lives, they never forgot the free and beautiful and wild power of a human smile. Their secret weapon.
Sheridan Hill is a native Tarheel whose company, Real Life Stories, LLC, produces heirloom biography for select clients.