The Stranger’s Face

My young son rode with me on an elevator from my 11th floor apartment down to the lobby. His sister was in the car with us, as was a woman — presumably another tenant of the building. As we four rode in silence, I glanced at my son; he was staring intently at the woman. I turned my eyes toward her, to see what he was looking at. After studying her face for a few seconds, I turned back to my son, who chose that moment to contort his own face into a miniature copy of the woman’s unconscious grimace.
I thought of that humorous moment of mimicry on one cool November morning when I saw a woman walking around a coffee shop, looking at the art on the walls. The edges of her mouth where pulled down into what I saw as a deep frown. She was dressed in a skirt, low heels and a fur-trimmed jacket with a muted plaid scarf as an accessory. She had placed her order at the counter of the coffee shop and was casually, though grimly, reviewing the layout of the shop. She chose a seat near a window, and still unsmiling, sat, arranging her briefcase and purse beside her. I watched as she glanced up at the young lady who brought her order, and suddenly, her face relaxed into a warmly welcoming smile, gratitude for the service. I was startled because I had made some negative assumptions about the woman, based on her mien.
A person’s face is sometimes called a “map,” a place where our travels through life have left an impression of the highways. A rough, reddened and weather-beaten face is often characterized as the result of outdoor labor or perhaps, the grinding toil of farming. We describe faces as open, or welcoming, and conversely, closed, or guarded, and our assumptions about a person are often based on what we see on the face. I worked with a woman whose outward demeanor was dramatically joyous; she came to work each day with a smile on her face, a gift she granted to everyone in the department with whom she interacted. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who had an unpleasant thought about her, or an unpleasant interaction, but I learned that she had overcome some spectacular miseries in her life, none of which had left an impression on her face.
Our instinct to make judgements is primal, developed from our need to determine whether what we saw was food or danger, whether to eat or run. Our judgments are highly nuanced now; we decide a family’s welfare based on the condition of the children’s clothing, a person’s education based on her writing and a man’s sexuality based on the color of his tie. But we cannot know what challenges or triumphs have been suffered or celebrated by the stranger whose face we examine. The outward repose may not reflect the inner turmoil, nor the inner joy.
My 5-year-old son’s mimicking of a face was not mean-spirited; he found the contortions of the woman’s face fascinating, and aped them. Some among us are cautioning the rest of us to be wary of the stranger’s face, to fear some faces and to wall ourselves off from others. But to care is to open ourselves to harm, and to love is to lay bare our hearts to the greatest pain. I think we are better people when we refuse to fear, when we can be kind, be gracious and understanding, and show decency to that stranger, whose face may show pain, but have some hidden joy.