It is at once a simple skill and a fine art, an act born of both the necessity and niceties of human interaction. The young ones, blissfully unaware of this ceremony, grin, fist-bump, and back-slap their way through the sea of faces. Their radiant beams might earn a wistful glance or two from hardened elders. Meanwhile, the latter sculpt their lips with finesse, fashioning the most delicate upturn at one corner, and then, with practiced precision, ever so slightly incline their heads in a gentle nod. For the bravest of these souls, the ritual takes a more outward form, as they raise their palms in silent offering. But no one―not one―dares bare their teeth, those bellwethers of youthful, unbridled rapture about which they can only reminisce. This is college after all. Saying hello to other people should be serious.
Am I embellishing? Of course. Do I smile ear to ear at everyone I’ve ever met at YU? Of course not. Nor do I expect any of my peers to do the same. It is difficult enough during our often grueling days to summon a shining countenance upon greeting friends, much less people we hardly know. Moreover, any and all attempts to acknowledge the existence of another human should be applauded, whether a smile and wave, smirk and head bob, or gape and point (okay, maybe not that last one). And in college, where survival demands some extent of self-absorption, a benevolent recognition of another becomes all the more benevolent. Even a gesture as seemingly insignificant as a nod can be a philosophical statement: You matter.
Yet I can’t help but feel uneasy as I unconsciously refine the shape of my smile, tailoring its warmth or lack thereof to suit the varying degrees of unknowingness of the passing faces. For me, the head-bob, the subtly curved corner of the mouth, and the raised eyebrows all have something in common, besides for being tepid greetings. They betray a kind of poignant resignation that so many of us, whether or not we formally meet, will never know each other. It is easy to say that the feeling is cynicism, just as it is easy to say the body language that expresses that feeling is inherently cynical. But cynicism shouldn’t hurt this much. It shouldn’t hurt to smile with my teeth, to let a breathless, “Hey!” escape from my throat. But it does. Because every time I consider doing it, extending myself precariously toward the vast, breathtaking unknown that is my fellow human being, I think of this happening over and over again and nothing more. I think of this happening again in May, after a year of pain and joy and all-nighters and breakups, after the end of our last final restores the life to our faces, and all we can say to each other is, “How’s it going man?”
And yet every time I yield to the pain, every time I walk by a not-even-acquaintance blankly, too self-conscious to smile and too sick of smirking, it only intensifies. I think of all the people I passed in silence that day: my peers from yeshiva, my classmates from elementary school and the little boys who were at my sixth birthday party with whom I may never have a meaningful conversation again. The distance between us grows even greater with each absent encounter. I think of Shammai’s timeless wisdom in Pirkei Avot, “Ve-hevei mekabel et kol ha-adam be-seiver panim yafot,” exhorting us to greet every person on this earth with a gracious countenance. And I sigh because I know panim yafot is nothing less than a brilliant smile, not that pitiful smirk I can barely stretch across my tired face. But most of all, I think about you, the almost-stranger whom I passed without so much as a look in the eye, and what could have been if I only smiled and didn’t let silence fill the void between us. I think about if I hadn’t succumbed to the forlorn silence that darts between furtive glances in the library and lurks in the hallways, amidst cafeteria lines and above crowded elevators. Then I stop. Because I will never know.
But I do know that the more I wallow in regret, the more I dwell in this shimmering prism of possibility instead of shining the light through it, the more I realize this pain is not mine alone. It belongs to my peers from yeshiva, my classmates from elementary school, the little boys who were at my sixth birthday party. It belongs to you. It belongs to me. It belongs to kol ha-adam, every person who is blessed to inhabit this lonely world. And I have to hold them all in my smile, I have to hold all their pain in my smile because I am his mekabel and her mekabel and your mekabel. The only pain I don’t have to hold is my own. So I smile.