Smiling Back at Our Problems

A smile can convey many things, among them, genuine happiness. But since a smile is also expressive of what we want to project to others, it may also conceal as much as it reveals. That is, at times it serves as a mask: “I’m fine (even as I suffer insult and frustration). I’ll never let them see me sweat!” So, what kind of smiling – for what purpose – am I referring to, and in response to what kinds of problems? 

Problems and Problematizing

Lexical definitions of the word problem vary: “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome,” but also “an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law.” Considering its root meaning in the Greek próblēma, “to throw or lay before us as an obstacle or challenge,” we see also suggestions what problematizing means. 

The simple shift from noun to verb suggests a movement from encountering something that is given, to reflectively and deliberately reframing our consideration of what does in fact lay before us. The verb form involves an attitudinal, cognitive, and emotional transformation. Attentional and intentional regard change the relationship we have to the problematic matter at hand. 

The emotional tone of this attitudinal and cognitive shift may become an intensely active one that seeks to control or change the problem state. However, it may also become a reflectively curious state of relative equanimity – just letting the problem state be as an object. And as it is allowed to simply be, it may also reveal more of its potential meaning, which, in turn, may then disclose possibilities for action. 

Smiling as Freedom

In this analysis, we see attitudes and emotions of East and West, Buddhist calm and rational agency, as they intermingle in moments of reflection. There is both the freedom from the “tyranny of the urgent,” as Stephen Covey so aptly put it, but also freedom for asserting informed choice. We may regard the smile as an expression of this freedom from, even with awareness of the limitations on our freedom. 

The smile is not a smug expression of dominance, although that too may emerge in a subsequent moment of this new-found freedom. Rather, it is a smile of aligned understanding. The universe as manifest in this moment through this problem situation is revealed in its truth. We see what is or may be possible, and we are able also to recognize the limits of freedom – a felt state of wisdom. 

We recognize in this wisdom that insight is gained by letting go and by letting the state of being reveal itself. This is an example of the paradoxical nature of Zen wisdom. But we need not drape ourselves in Buddhist garb to find it. We need not deny the active, agenic style of expressing freedom that we in the West prize. But I hope you can see the virtuous balance achieved in merging these traditions.