My friend Alexa was in town from South Africa a few weeks ago and tried looking up and smiling while here. It’s a brave thing to do, looking up and smiling, especially when in New York, where eye contact alone can be viewed as (1) an invitation or (2) a threat, but she wanted to see if it made a difference, so she did it.
It isn’t lost on me that she tried this while on vacation, not in her hometown. Tourists look up anyway, showing excited, expectant faces to the locals hurrying past them. They are taking pictures, figuring out street signs and searching the eyes of the people walking by for some bit of recognition. I am no different. When I used to go to Paris, I watched everyone, hoping to see a flash of outfit approval from a real, live French person. On a recent trip to Mexico, I was much brighter, much more curious and friendly than normal (but not too curious and friendly because all-inclusive resorts still have a whiff of “I never thought this would happen to me…” about them). With nothing to lose, it is simpler to put yourself out there, but no less scary. No less brave.
Alexa had a great story to tell from day 1 of her experiment. She was walking down a street in SoHo, consciously looking up with a smile on her face. Halfway down the block, she heard her name called. “Alexa?” She turned around and saw a man she’d known in New York more than 30 years ago. After a squeal-filled reunion, they went to a cafe to catch up, where she asked him how she recognized her from across the street, so many years later. He told her that he didn’t recognize her at first, but instead noticed a confident woman who was radiating lightness. It was only after he saw her that he realized he knew her.
Confidence and lightness were beacons, preceding her down the street and drawing people to her. How amazing is that and what a great lesson for all of us! When you look down, or furrow your face into your own head, the universe gets nothing and no one sees you, simple as that. And sometimes that is what’s needed to survive . I’ll admit to weeks where I focus downward and inward, even though I know I shouldn’t. I know it’s bad for my soul, bad for my posture, bad for my life, but you can’t shine outward always.
But when you can muster the bravery, give it a try. Even if it’s just when you walk down the frozen food aisle at Trader Joe’s, look up and smile at the air around you. It does no harm and may be the first step in a long-overdue reunion.