When you need to let yourself smile

Ever since his Spartan cheerleader days, I’ve loved Will Ferrell, but I didn’t realize how much I would come to admire one of the qualities of one of his most childlike characters.

I’m obviously talking about Buddy the Elf’s passion for smiling.

We’re taught at early ages how to smile. I mean, when you’re a little baby, people are constantly smiling at you, and somewhere along the way, you instinctively start smiling back. Then people stick cameras in your face and use that “say cheese” thing, and the smiles just keep coming. Smiles are outward expressions of joy, and they are truly beautiful.

But sometimes those smiles don’t always come so easily.

I’m not a huge fan of crying, and it’s normally not something I do often—though lately I feel like the tears have been a bit too frequent. For many reasons I won’t delve into at this time, life has been tough lately, and sometimes I have moments when I can’t fight back the tears that start piling up at the brims of my eyes.

Smiling is often the best option.

I had one of those instances recently at work, and I really didn’t want to cry at my desk. My sweet friend Bonnie had texted me to check on me (she knew I was having a bad day), and I told her I was on the verge of tears. She offered to meet me in a bathroom where we wouldn’t see any of our coworkers, and she stood there with me while I let Niagara Falls invade my face, and she listened as I aired my grievances—and God bless her, because I say some pretty ridiculous things when I’m crying.

After a little while, I looked at myself in the mirror and told her I couldn’t go back to work looking like I did. (When I cry, my eyes turn a super deep almost emerald blue color, and my face is SO splotchy.) And then she told me I needed to smile—whether I wanted to look in the mirror and smile or go stand in a bathroom stall and stare at the door, I simply needed to smile for about a minute. She said doing so would make the rest of me start to believe I wasn’t so sad, and I wouldn’t look like I’d been crying as much.

Have you ever tried looking at yourself in the mirror and forcing yourself to smile when it’s the last thing you want to do? It’s so awkward. Thankfully, Bonnie said something to make me laugh, and so the smile actually became real. And she was right, too—I went back to my desk without anyone noticing that I had just ugly cried moments before.

A couple of days later, I was in spin class, and the instructor kept reminding us to smile and that it would help us remember that what we were doing was actually fun. Most of the time when I’m in this type of class, I’m just trying to figure out the whole beat thing. It’s one of those classes in which you ride to the beat of the music, which is not my forte—I’m used to dancing freestyle with zero concern of beat or rhythm. But, I must say, that smiling tactic of his really helped. It turned out to be the most fun class I’ve ever taken.

I suppose I needed one more reminder about the importance of smiling. Joni Eareckson Tada was a guest speaker at church over the weekend, and she mentioned how she makes herself smile every morning before facing the day to help set the right attitude from the start.

I guess smiling is a lot more effective than we think it is.

For years now, I’ve tried to incorporate smiling into my running. I always try to remind myself of my mantra of “one smile per mile,” which truly helps me enjoy running even when it hurts. I do this especially in races, and it really does give me more of a positive perspective about even the most grueling miles. Sure, I probably look like a complete idiot when I’m smiling to no one, but I also get to smile to people in passing, which makes me even happier. Smiling isn’t just good for us—a simple smile truly can lift someone’s spirits more than we’ll ever know.

I realize that smiling can’t get rid of our pain, and it doesn’t make all of our problems go away, but sometimes it somehow helps. Maybe it sends some secret message from our heads to our hearts that says, “Hey, true joy is possible, and don’t you ever forget it.” Life is often difficult, and it’s going to throw stuff our way that we really don’t want, and probably the last thing we will want to do is smile. But when you find those moments when you can choose to put a smile on your face—even if only for a second or two—it really might help. It won’t solve everything, but it can force you to wipe the tears off of your face and march back up to your desk to take on everything else that comes your way that day.

We get to decide how we react to the situations we face. Sure, we’re going to encounter hurts and frustrations and sorrow and anger and stress and pain and regret and bitterness and a countless amount of other negative emotions—but we can’t stay wrapped up in those forever. Eventually, we have to walk away from those with courage that we never knew we had.

And sometimes bravery comes in the form of a smile.

When a duck joins the pool party

I’ve come to an important conclusion: There are too many rules in this world.

And it’s time we stopped being part of the system.

I was at my pool recently, and a duck suddenly flew from out of somewhere and landed on the water. It didn’t seem very sanitary to me, but I’m pretty sure worse things have likely entered that pool than a little duck grossness. I was in the middle of reading but had to stop and watch this duck—because what was he doing? Didn’t he know that he didn’t belong in a pool and should find the nearest pond?

I’m not sure if he knew, but he certainly didn’t care. Well played, duck. Well played.

Float on, buddy

I have to admit that I respect a duck who shows no regard for societal standards. Homeboy was not concerned with where others thought he should be or the fact that chlorine may or may not be dangerous to him (I’m not really sure what chemicals a duck’s system can tolerate). He simply wanted to come float in a pool, and so that’s what he did.

And on that day, I found myself inspired by a duck.

It’s easy to feel like you don’t belong sometimes, especially when other people remind you of that. I remember when I was in sixth grade and tried to play football with the boys during P.E., and a coach told me that girls can’t play football. I was not a duck that day. Then there was pretty much every single day of my college career at SMU, where I constantly felt like I didn’t belong, and more than one person reminded me of that. I was not a duck when I was a Mustang. And then there were the first few weddings I attended when the slow songs started playing, and it was time for the single people to clear the dance floor. I was not a duck back then. I’m sure there are plenty more non-duck situations, but I’ll stop there.

Because it’s much better to be like that silly duck who doesn’t care if he’s in a pool or a pond.

I certainly can’t say I’m like him all of the time. I still have moments when I listen to the system and go back to the pond. But I’ve learned how great the pool can be. I’ve learned that it’s better not to let others say I can’t do things because I’m a girl—sometimes I can try to play with the boys if I want. I’ve learned that I’m not going to be in the same social class as everyone in every situation, but that’s alright—we’re all still people. I’ve learned that you don’t have to have a dance partner for every slow song—twirling by yourself is not a lost art. (I would like to note, however, that forever twirling solo is certainly not the goal.)

And I’ve learned that it’s better to be a duck in a pool than a duck who doesn’t know where he belongs.

There are definitely places you shouldn’t go when you’re not expected to be there—I’m not going to walk into a men’s locker room anytime soon, and a fish really shouldn’t try to hang out outside of the water if he wants to keep his life going. But if there’s some place you know you’re supposed to be or something you know you’re supposed to do or say, then why not do the same thing as the ridiculous duck did? Just land in the pool, and start floating along in that water.

Because sometimes the pond is holding you back from being brave enough to test the chlorine-filled waters.

Let’s dance forever

I feel the need to address a serious problem in our society today: there’s not enough dancing.

And it needs to change–soon.

I love dancing. I never took dance, and I probably wouldn’t have been very successful, because I’m not very good at organized and structured dance. I prefer to make the moves up as I go. But dancing doesn’t have to look pretty to be beautiful–it simply needs to be natural.

I was on an elevator the other day with a mom and her young daughter (she looked maybe 4 or 5), and suddenly the girl burst into some spontaneous dancing when another woman’s phone began ringing. The mom looked at me and apologized before telling her little girl to stop busting those moves (though she didn’t use that wording). I told her there was no need to apologize and that the world needs more dancing. The little girl looked up at me and said, “Let’s dance forever!”

She’s got the right idea.

It was a really good song

I think a lot of people don’t dance much because of the fear of what people will think of them. But what does that matter? If everyone danced more, we wouldn’t have time to analyze everyone else’s dancing. Taylor Swift gets it, though. She frequently dances at awards shows to the live music, and people continue to ridicule her, and she continues not to care. You know why? Because it doesn’t matter.

I love the John Michael Montgomery song “Life’s a Dance,” because it’s such a great analogy.

Life’s a dance you learn as you go

Sometimes you lead; sometimes you follow

But don’t worry about what you don’t know

Life’s a dance you learn as you go

In life, you don’t always have structure, and you don’t always know what your next move is. Sometimes you really just have to move along to the beat–and you may look completely off-beat–without caring about what the world outside is thinking. You may look like a flailing monkey, but those might be the perfect moves that make you you. You may step on your partner’s toes when you’re trying to two-step, but nobody is perfect, and the people who care about you aren’t going to let your mistakes ruin a good song. Just dance.

Because dancing is BOLD.

Lee Ann Womack gets it, too, and she sang about it:

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance

Livin’ might mean takin’ chances, but they’re worth takin’

Lovin’ might be a mistake, but it’s worth makin’

Don’t let some hell-bent heart leave you bitter

When you come close to sellin’ out, reconsider

Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance


It’s easy to lean against the wall or stay in your chair and avoid the dance floor, but it takes courage to get out there and dance. And life needs more people choosing courage. Because you’re going to come across opportunities in life when you have to make choices that let you either do things that are BOLD or play it safe and choose not to risk anything. But some risks are simply worth taking.

Like dancing your heart out.

I hope the little girl from the elevator continues to dance when she hears cell phones ring and whenever else the opportunity presents itself. I hope her mom learns from her precious daughter and follows her lead. I hope more people take the chance and stop caring about their images and just dance, instead.

You just might find courage you never knew you had in so many areas of life if you’d just dance.

Let’s dance forever.

When you have your people

There are some things I am fully qualified to do but avoid doing as much as possible.

Like driving a bus.

I had been somewhat dreading last Friday, because I knew it meant I was going to have to drive a bus. With children on it. I’m a very confident driver (probably sometimes a bit too confident) when I’m cruising around Dallytown or making my forever-long work commute to Canada and back every weekday, but there’s something that gives me real anxiety about driving a bus. I was required to get my CDL when I was coaching, but I only drove a bus full of athletes once, and it was a situation where I was the only option available.

And that was almost two years ago.

I really didn’t want to have to drive, but I had a promise to fulfill. You see, my students had earned a mini field trip to Cane’s (which is seriously less than a mile from our school), and I had to be the one to take them there. My kids were counting on me, and I could not–and would not–even think about letting them down. I always encourage them to be fearless in all they do and to give their best in all situations, and I obviously could not hypocritically not follow my own advice.

Great crew

As soon as we loaded the bus Friday afternoon, I started sweating. Even though I aced my driving test during the actual process of obtaining this cursed license, there is something different about being in a real-life situation without another licensed adult in the vehicle with you to take over in case you prove to be a destructive disaster. Instead, I had 11 individuals super excited about getting to go to off-campus lunch and all fully confident in my abilities to get them there safely.

The trip started off rough. The brakes felt rusty, and it took me multiple times to press on them without feeling like I would send everyone flying forward; the doors flew open, but thankfully we weren’t going fast enough yet, and the kids were all sitting in the back, anyway, so I stopped to have a student come pull the lever to make sure the doors remained closed tightly; I was still sweating; I was too nervous to go the set speed limit, and one student yelled from the back to ask me if we would get to Cane’s before Thanksgiving; there were other cars on the road; I was still sweating; there was a super small turn space when we actually entered the Cane’s parking lot, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make the squeeze (in fact, I briefly paused and gave up, thinking I would need to call someone to come rescue us all from this horrid predicament, but I said a little prayer, and God got us all out of that pickle with only one tiny curb check); and I invented my own parking spot in some grass.

Once we got inside, the kids cracked a few jokes but also tried to make me feel better by telling me I did a good job. I love them. Then, they all wanted to go around the table and share what they were thankful for, and they pretty much all said what they were thankful for in regard to our precious class. If I were a crier, I would have been bawling. They warmed my heart more than anyone outside of the teaching profession would likely ever think teenagers could. It was the most beautiful lunch anyone could ever have at a grease-filled fried chicken establishment, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it.

My mood changed, though, as we walked out to the bus, because all I could think about was the dreaded drive back to the school. It was a complicated exit from Cane’s, and I wasn’t confident in my abilities to be successful.

But Someone else was. And He gave me just what I needed.

Three of my students sat at the front of the bus rather than at the back with the others, and one of them said to me, “Ms. Merrill, we believe in you. We don’t care how long it takes to get back, but you can do this.” Then another added, “You’re always there for us, so it’s our turn to be there for you. We will be sitting here if you need anything.” They talked to me the entire way, and I forgot about being so nervous. I forgot about all of my worries, and I knew everything was going to be just fine. I had my people with me.

Life can get hard sometimes–even more challenging than driving a big yellow titanic submarine on wheels–and it’s even more daunting when you have to face those situations when you feel like you’re all alone. But, if you surround yourself with people who truly care about you and will be there for you when you need them the most, you might find strength that you never knew you had. I fully believe with all of my heart that God puts the right people in our lives at the exact moments we need them–and He can use anyone.

There will be times in life when your bus doors fly open, or you feel stuck in a parking lot, or you feel completely overwhelmed and unsure how you will possibly reach your destination in one piece. But you aren’t alone. You’re never alone. Know that there is always a voice trying to whisper to you, “I believe in you.” I hope you hear it.

And I hope you have your people there with you.