You Should Smile More

Every time I go to the gym this seems to happen:

A gentleman will approach me, signal for me to remove my headphones, and say something like, “I see you in here all of the time. You should smile more.”

It doesn’t matter what gym, inevitably a man will tell me I need to smile more. I need to enjoy myself. I need to soak up every minute. I need to seize the moment.

I’m just here to lift weights, man.

I know this message is right and good. But as 2017 begins, I have to finally allow myself to admit that it just doesn’t work for me. It bugs me. This carpe diem message makes me paranoid and panicky. Especially during this phase of my life—while I’m transitioning into a new city. Being told, in a million different ways to smile more makes me think that if I’m not in a constant state of intense gratitude and ecstasy, I’m doing something wrong.

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

I think life can be hard. It can be a little like climbing The Appalachian Trail. Brave, adventurous souls try it because they’ve heard there’s magic in the climb. They try because they believe that finishing, or even attempting the climb are impressive accomplishments.

They try because during the climb, if they allow themselves to pause and lift their eyes and minds from the pain and suffering, the views are breathtaking. They try because even though it hurts and it sucks, there are moments that make it worth the suck.

These moments are so intense and unique that many people who reach the end start planning, almost immediately, to climb again. Even though any climber will tell you that most of the climb is treacherous, exhausting, killer. That they literally cried most of the way up.

And so I think that if there were people stationed, say every thirty feet along The Appalachian Trail yelling to the climbers — “WHY AREN’T YOU SMILING? ARE YOU NOT ENJOYING YOURSELF!? IF NOT, YOU SHOULD BE! ONE DAY YOU’LL BE SORRY! TRUST US!” — those well-meaning, nostalgic cheerleaders might be physically thrown from a clff.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the sweet old men who tell me to SMILE MORE be thrown from a cliff. These are wonderful men. Loving Grandpas, probably. But not long ago, a man approached me in-between lunges and said the following, “You would look amazing if you lost ten pounds and smiled more. Amazing. You have incredible muscle bellies. Don’t tell my girlfriend over there I told you that. She doesn’t have great muscle bellies like you do, but seriously — just ten pounds. Oh, and smile.”

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

At that particular moment, it took everything in me not to tell the guy to piss off and drop a dumbbell on his foot. I could literally feel my body temperature rising and my face lighting up like a Christmas tree.

It was my knee-jerk reaction to want to defend myself. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders, and yell, “Let me explain something, asshole…” I wanted him to know that I was just getting back into the gym after a serious back injury. I wanted to let him know that dieting in the past had lead me down an unhealthy path of food obsession and exercise addiction. And this time I was losing weight the right way.

But then I caught myself. I don’t have to explain myself to this putz. I don’t owe him anything. His thoughts and opinion of me are insignificant. His words are only meaningful If I choose to assign them meaning.

So, instead, I kindly informed him that while I didn’t think he intended to be mean-spirited, it was an incredibly stupid thing to say and advised him not to make unsolicited comments on women’s bodies in the future. Derp.

That’s not what I wanted to say, though.

There was a famous writer who, when asked if she loved writing, replied, “No, but I love having written.”

And so it goes with working out—I don’t always love it in the moment. I don’t always love squatting, lunging, rowing, and pressing. But I love having worked out. My favorite part of the day is when I walk out of the gym feeling accomplished and prepared to tackle the day.

Every time I write something like this, I’ll get emails suggesting I’m being negative. But I don’t think that’s quite fair. Sometimes just getting to the gym is hard. Just like lots of important jobs are hard. Why is it the second a fitness professional admits it can be hard, people need to suggest maybe she’s not doing it right? Maybe the fact that it’s so hard means that she IS doing it right…in her own way…and she happens to be honest.

There are a lot of hard jobs out there. Parenting in particular comes to mind. But for some, this economy has been a huge financial hit. Can you imagine your spouse coming home at the end of the work day, blowing a little steam about how hard it is out there, and then suggesting he’s not doing it right, or that he’s being negative for noticing it’s hard. I doubt anyone comes by his office and asks him why he isn’t smiling more. I doubt his boss pokes his head in his office and says, “This career stuff…it goes so fast…ARE YOU ENJOYING EVERY MOMENT IN THERE, JOHN??? THE FISCAL YEAR FLIES BY!!! YOU SHOULD SMILE MORE, JOHN!”

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

My point is this. I used to worry that not only was I failing to do a good enough job at parenting and working out regularly, but that I wasn’t enjoying it enough. Double failure. I felt guilty because I wasn’t in ecstasy every hour of every day and I wasn’t MAKING THE MOST OF EVERY MOMENT like the Mom’s on Pinterest seem to be doing. I felt guilty because honestly, I was tired and cranky and ready for the day to be over. And because I knew that one day, I’d wake up and my daughter would be gone, and I’d be the old lady in the gym watching youngsters train and wish I could perform the way I used to.

But the fact remains that I will eventually be that nostalgic old lady. I just hope to be one with a clear memory. And here’s what I hope to say to the younger lady not smiling in the gym:

“It’s helluva hard, isn’t it? You’re doing awesome. I see you in here consistently and I respect your work ethic. Are you a Mom? I see you bring your kids to the gym. They’re cute kids. Especially the one that’s peeing over in the corner. She’s my favorite. Carry on, friend. Only six hours until bedtime.”

Anyway, clearly carpe diem or smiling more doesn’t work for me. I can’t even carpe fifteen minutes in a row, so a whole diem is out of the question.

Here’s what does work for me:

Recognizing that there are two different types of time. There’s the time we live in. It’s the regular time, it’s the one minute at a time, it’s the staring at the clock till bedtime, it’s ten excruciating minutes in the DMV line time, it’s four screaming minutes in time out time, it’s two hours until Daddy gets home time. It’s the slow, hard passing time we live in.

Then there’s time outside of time. It’s the metaphysical time. It’s those magical moments in which time stands still. It’s those few moments we have each day that we cherish.

Like when I actually stop what I’m doing and really think about my Sidney. I recall how perfectly pouty her lips are. I think about the perfect curves of her long legs and her friendly eyes. In these moments, I see that her mouth is moving but I can’t hear what she’s saying because all I can think about is—This is the first time I’ve really seen Sidney all day, and my God—she is so beautiful.

These moments leave as fast as they come, but I notice them. And at the end of the day, I don’t exactly remember what all of those feel-good moments were, but I remember I had them. And that makes the pain of the daily climb of life worth it.

That’s when I smile.

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