Here is a fun experiment. Below is a clip from Futurama, a clip from The Notebook, a clip from Field of Dreams, a clip from Titanic, and the ending to Toy Story 3. Logically speaking, at least one of these clips should make you sad. At the same time, you may not understand why people would find the other ones to be sad.
Also logically speaking, a plurality of you are somewhere in public. Perhaps you are crying. Look around and notice how people respond to you.
Here is another fun experiment. Next time you are walking somewhere, you may run into a person you know. As you pass each other, they will inevitably ask, “How are you?” We all know what answer to expect. Good. Ok. Not bad. Those are all acceptable answers. But what if you instead answer with a straight face, “Really bad. I’m not having a good week and I don’t know what I am going to do.” Then after the appropriate amount of seconds, smile and say, “Just kidding.” It’s not really a funny joke, but it makes a point. We expect everyone to hide their emotions when you casually pass in the hall. We expect everyone to put on a happy face.
To an extent, we are expected to put on a happy face in public. Whatever emotions and troubles we may have, we keep them buried inside. It is only in private life that the façade is allowed to break. We can weep when no one but those closest to us are watching.
I am leading to the fact that we may not always be aware of the mental health issues others, even our closest friends, struggle with. However, we need to have empathy. I sum it up as, “Are we willing to let our friends to take off the happy face when they are around us?” “Will we give them what they need even if we don’t understand?” People need to be vulnerable; are we letting them?
The Executive Editor of Cracked.com, David Wong, wrote an amazing article after the passing of Robin Williams about the struggles faced by funny people. Among his many excellent points, he argues that the “clown” persona is a defense mechanism and the best thing you can do for a funny person is be there for them when they don’t want to be funny. An account of Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt points out how surprising the attempt was for the public, but then points out how many people weren’t privy to the struggles he faced. In Jim Norton’s own tribute to Robin Williams, he notes how darkness often surrounds the funniest people. Even those responsible for providing laughter need time to be vulnerable. To indirectly quote G.K. Chesterton: the religion of cheerfulness is a cruel religion.
Now I am not saying that we must be vulnerable with everyone. Vulnerability is something that is earned with trust. It is like a superhero taking off their mask, letting someone see the face you hide from the rest of the world. As such, when someone “needs to talk” or “needs some alone time,” see it as a sign that he or she trusts you enough to be honest with their emotions.
When I first heard the peppy 1960s jazz song “Put on a Happy Face,” it was accompanied by a video of clowns getting ready for a show. Thus I have always connected the idea of a happy face to a clown. The smile is literally painted across your mouth, so you smile even when you desperately don’t want to. Otherwise someone might see the person beneath the face.
So next time you see someone you know in public whose smile looks like it was painted on too well, stop a second. Ask “How are you really doing?” because they might give an honest answer.