Oh Baby, What A Smile Essay

June 13, 1993|By Stephen Vicchio

There are many kinds of smiles, each having a distinct character. Some announce goodness and sweetness, others betray sarcasm, bitterness and pride; some soften the countenance by their languishing tenderness, others brighten by their spiritual vivacity.

John Caspar Lavater

18th-century Swiss theologian

My infant son's first smile came at 24 days. An odd quizzical look came over his face like the darkness that accompanies a brewing thunderstorm.

A moment later it passed, replaced by the sun peeking out, first from the corners of his small mouth, then quickly illuminating his entire face. It animated his dull, gray baby eyes, turning them to small lakes of blue fire. It soon spread to the rest of his face, etching the first small wrinkles in his tiny brow. A moment later, the smile was gone.

The pediatrician and assorted other experts on babies were skeptical about the matter. A number of older women, speaking in voices like those of TV weather forecasters predicting rain for the weekend, told me I must be mistaken.

I soon learned there are two generally favored explanations for a baby's first smile -- complete euphoria and gas. Perhaps there is no other great mystery in life, save love itself, for which utter

happiness and lower intestinal distress might be proffered as viable explanations.

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, in one of his wisest essays, points out the essential ambiguity that often accompanies human expressions and gestures.

We cannot be sure, he says, why a man may raise the palms of his hands together. The man could be praying, or he might be preparing to throw himself into the sea.

Since my son's first smile, the boy has made a regular practice of it. But babies' smiles, I recently have discovered, are usually quite different from those of adults. The smile of a baby never completely disappears. Rather, it seems to dissipate, almost as if it is absorbed by the eyes, returning through those windows of the soul.

The adult smile, more times than not, is accomplished entirely with the facial muscles. They snap back into place after the use for the smile has passed. The adult smile too often works like a stretched rubber band. It is purely utilitarian, and can only be pulled so many times before it no longer performs its function. But the smile of a new baby is quite a different matter. It seems to have an eternal origin. It spreads like a great sea, ebbing and flowing by its own mystical tidal laws.

In Act I of "Hamlet," Shakespeare has the melancholic Dane say that "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." He was referring, of course, to a species of the adult smile -- the studied smile, the smile of Iago and Cordelia's sisters, the half-smile of Richard Nixon telling us he is not a crook, the smile that looks for advantage before it flexes its muscles.

Since the birth of the boy, I have paid more attention to the nature and uses of the smile. I have come to understand that adult smiles come in many varieties: There is a kind of Cheshire cat smile, where nothing of real substance lies behind it; there are smiles of disdain, and smiles of embarrassment; there are smiles of elation, and smiles of profound sadness. But so few adult smiles are like those of small children.

Psychologists tell us an infant of 2 or 3 months will smile at even a half-painted dummy face, if the half-countenance is equipped with two clearly defined points or circles for eyes. More than this, the infant does not need; but he will not smile for less, for he knows that the secret to a smile is not to be found in the mouth, but rather deep within the eyes.

My small son's smiles are all of a single, holy, pedagogical piece. In these first months of life this boy has been his father's instructor. It is in their teaching function we find the smiles' crowning effect. Through the boy's smiles I feel recognized, perhaps even sanctified. In the presence of the baby, I return his smile from deep within my eyes.

Andre Maurois, a 20th-century French essayist, suggests in "The Art of Living" that we cannot completely love those at whom we cannot smile. In the past four months my son daily has shown me that Maurois is surely right. My son has taught me many things, but the most important one is this -- that the simplest and yet most complete form of reciprocity is to be found in the

human smile.

STEPHEN VICCHIO teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His most recent collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," was published by Wakefield Editions.

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