A sentiment that I’ve heard quite a bit over the years in discussions of service is that sometimes “all people need is a smile”. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that and wondering about the times in my life when a smile was all it took to change my outlook. Maybe I’m just a more morose woman than most. Or maybe my trials are just much harder than others’. But I could only come up with three times when someone merely smiling at me makes that much of a difference to me.
There was once a woman who was the crossing guard at my children’s school. I met her later that year, but in the beginning she was just the crossing guard. And she always had a big smile on her face and a friendly wave for all the cars who drove by. I didn’t feel like my weekday was off to a good start until I had driven past her and smiled and waved back.
And in church, sometimes when the kids are giving me a hard time or the baby is crying inconsolably or they have created some incredible mess someplace, a smile from another parent is just enough to let me know that my plight is understood and they have sympathy and don’t think any less of me. It kind of means that we are all in this together, a sign of solidarity and compassion and understanding.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in that situation, what was actually more helpful was the sister who offered to take my baby from me and walk her around so I could sit and peacefully listen to the message. What I felt from that sister was even greater compassion and love. She saw my difficulties and did more than merely acknowledge that they were normal, she tried to ease my burdens. In the end, I kept the baby with me, but I enjoyed a brief conversation with this sister out in the hallway that totally invigorated me and refreshed me. And in the future, when I am struggling or having difficulties, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable turning for help to the people who merely gave me the smile. But I could call up the sister who offered to help me.
I do believe that smiles can shine a little ray of sunlight into someone’s life. But I think the more effective way to help people and let them feel the love of God is to dig in with our two hands and open up our hearts and inconvenience ourselves to help bear their burdens. That’s the way of the Lord. He condescended below all things. He left his throne on high to come down to this sinful, mortal world and get his hands dirty and weary himself in our service.
Bishop H. David Burton told this story of Joseph Smith:
A group of men were talking with the Prophet Joseph Smith one day when news arrived that the house of a poor brother who lived some distance from town was burned down. Everyone expressed sorrow for what had happened. The Prophet listened for a moment, then “put his hand in his pocket, took out five dollars and said, ‘I feel sorry for this brother to the amount of five dollars; how much do you all feel sorry?’ ” The immediacy of the Prophet’s response is significant. (H. David Burton, “Tender Hearts and Helping Hands,” Ensign, May 2006, 8–11)
In 1856, there were a few handcart companies who had started out late leaving from the east and heading towards Salt Lake City. Usually, the church would send out supplies and help to the handcart companies as they drew near. But these late starting handcart companies were arriving and no one in Salt Lake knew about it. Unfortunately there were early winter storms and these companies were stuck, freezing to death, and literally starving. Finally, they were able to send a scout who told Brigham Young about their plight. The next day was General Conference. This is what Brigham Young said:
Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles [1,100 kilometers] from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. …
I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12 tons [11 tonnes] of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams. … First, 40 good young men who know how to drive teams, to take charge of the teams that are now managed by men, women and children who know nothing about driving them. Second, 60 or 65 good spans of mules, or horses, with harness, whipple trees, neck-yokes, stretchers, lead chains, &c. And thirdly, 24 thousand pounds [11,000 kilograms] of flour, which we have on hand. …
I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains. And attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties. Otherwise, your faith will be in vain. The preaching you have heard will be in vain to you, and you will sink to Hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you. (James E. Faust, “Go Bring Them In from the Plains,” Liahona, Nov 1997, 3)
I think we have all experienced those times in life that were dark and where there seemed to be no hope. We have all had crises of faith and wondered whether God really did hear and answer prayers. We have had heartbreak and sorrow and trials that seemed insurmountable. And all around us, there are other people who are currently experiencing their own private Gethsemane.
What Brigham Young and Joseph Smith are teaching here is that service isn’t about doing the least we can possibly do to be helpful. It’s about finding out what needs to be done and doing it now, doing it regardless of the personal inconvenience it may be to us. And sometimes that may come in the form of just giving someone a much needed smile. But I think that more often than not, with the forces of Satan working so hard to bring us down, that we will be needed to give more than that. We will need to give hugs and listen. We will need to give of our time, our money, our physical labor. And