Britta Gustafson: Smile with your eyes

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Many of us are missing a small but important social cue these days: smiles. They’re our most straightforward way to communicate kindness, and for those who want to be both socially responsible and friendly, the inability to express our feelings is starting to take its toll.

Growing up here in Snowmass Village, I used to imagine what it would be like to live in a neighborhood where all the houses had full-time residents; and I would fantasize about living on a street filled with other families with kids and neighbors all around. But although the large houses continued to crop up around our home, growing and expanding in size year after year, most remained empty 11 months of the year.

On our street, only about half of the 13 homes seemed to be occupied at any given time at the most. It’s been a big shift during this strange year now that every home is currently inhabited. These days, our small cul-de-sac has a fair amount of daily hustle and bustle.

But it isn’t at all the way I had always imagined. In fact, I’m sad to say, it feels even less like a neighborhood than ever before.

Why? I speculate it’s due to COVID-19 culture shifting the way we see one another, creating that invisible 6-foot barrier between us that brings with it a chasm of disconnect.

Real estate was snatched up here in part because this place seems to offer refuge from highly populated places, and it feels like a sanctuary in the mountains. A place to be alone, perhaps. And while this new community is growing, I’m not yet convinced that we are sharing an interest in connecting. This may all be in part because there is an underlying feeling of collective unease.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. I want to believe that our new neighbors and home owners are friendly and would be more neighborly under normal circumstances. It leads me to wonder if we are all simply losing the ability to express warmth and connection with strangers right now. Maybe it’s all a misunderstanding because we have just forgotten how to extend a smile, or because we simply cannot share smiles from under our masks.

In an age of polarization, xenophobia, inequality, downward mobility and environmental devastation, a new fear of strangers — along with a sharp increase in antipathy — seems to be a byproduct of the pandemic as well as the current culture. And it certainly goes both ways.

Being reserved, leery or even cold may be a knee jerk reaction to self preservation. And being outright mean might even provide us with some short-term control, a fleeting sense of satisfaction in unleashing our fears and frustrations on someone else. I still believe that kindness also is contagious.

It turns out there is a sweeping scientific case for kindness. Kindness, and its cousins generosity and altruism, create that positive ripple effect. A single kind act or gesture is proven to spread outward affecting first our neighborhood, then the community at large, and we can all hope it catches on to spread across our culture. I think we need it just as much as a vaccine right now.

As the age old adage goes, “Use your smile to change the world; don’t let the world change your smile.”

Yes, it’s hard to extend a smile from beneath a mask or while practicing considerate social distancing, especially when the most compassionate act might be staying away or staying home. But with that in mind, perhaps our efforts to extend goodwill are even more noticeable.

We know that every interaction can have that cause and effect, and when someone goes out of their way to avoid passing you on the path, perhaps it needs to include a friendly wave or some gesture of compunction. Or smile from your car, even if you are forcing it. Smiles are good for you, too!

It seems like we need to take a look at the way we use the powers we do have when we interact, even when we feel powerless, because each small moment between us now can have that lasting ripple across our humanity.

At this fraught moment, we can offer love and hope and kindness, even at a distance. It may just require extra effort.

Mock this thought process if you like, but I will still send you a virtual hug because I know we would be friends in another time and space.

February is a month punctuated by a holiday that encourages love. Let’s imagine a world with more love and kindness, and try to smile with our eyes, our gestures, our words and hopefully our hearts.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at