The Parable of the Smile

To the casual observer she appeared quite normal. She met the required features of a little girl, which is to say she was cute as a button through and through. Fine hair, an adorably distinct nose, and eyes that smiled for the world. Any parent would be blessed to have such a child, which is not to say that her parents were not exceedingly blessed, for of course they were, but for as blessed as they were they were equal parts vexed. Behind all that cute-as-a-buttonness was a defect the likes of which the world had never seen.

The girl, you see, just wouldn’t frown.

“But isn’t that a good thing?” pleaded her parents when told of their child’s impairment by despondent doctors.

“I’m afraid not,” they would say. As well as, “I’m sorry” and “We’ll do the best we can do.” Some even offered a not so hopeful “Maybe she’ll grow out of it.”

But she never did. Days went by, weeks and months passed, and soon years started to take their turn. All, sad to say, without a single frown.

Each appointment with a doctor brought with it another test, another pill to try, another referral for another doctor who had another test and another pill and another referral, and so on. All without success.

The day-in, day-out struggles of living with such a condition began to take their toll of the family. Patience shortened and tempers heightened. Constant worrying begat restless nights with little sleep. Unable to capture slumber, let alone dreams, her parents often found themselves escaping into her room in the dark of night, hoping to catch a glimpse – just one tiny, little glimpse – of a frown.

It never came.

With no luck from doctors, the family began to fear a mental condition of some sort, perhaps a psychological shortcoming that prevented the most common of expressions, the frown. Psychologists came and went. Psychiatrists came and went. Alternative and new age practices failed as well. Wherever the child went, the smile followed.

When the child came of school age, her parents were certain the frown would soon emerge. School, with its homework, schoolyard name-calling, long division, and all the rest – surely, if a frown were to come into view, this was the place.

Soon enough the teachers, administrators, and parents began to notice a change that both startled and alarmed them. Not only did the frown never come, but it seemed to be disappearing from the other children in the school as well. Parents reported smiling children, teachers complained of smiling students, and before long panic set in. An emergency meeting of the school board was called, with a standing-room only mob of angry parents.

“My son refuses to frown!” hollered one mother.

“And my daughter hasn’t stopped smiling since last Tuesday!” called another.

And so the meeting went, with concerned parent after concerned parent demanding that something be done. By the meeting’s end, the exacerbated school board had no choice but to suspend the little girl until such time that her smile was no longer infectious.

Her parents, hiding their faces from the glaring eyes that confronted them as they left the school, returned home – weary, distraught, desperate.

They awoke the next morning to a news anchor knocking on the front door. Looking out, they found that he was not alone. The entire street was covered with news vans, reporters with microphones, curious neighbors.

“No comment,” was all they could muster, shutting the door and returning to the confines of their home. The little girl, curious at all the commotion, lifted the window blinds just enough to look outside, and, not knowing what else to do, simply smiled.


And so it was that the little girl’s photo made the front page of the New York Times the following morning. The headline, in big, bold letters, declared: CHILD REFUSES TO FROWN; EPIDEMIC FEARED!

Newspapers all across the country followed suit. The phone rang constantly with producers, reporters, agents, and directors calling with interview requests and contract offers. Occasional calls came from anonymous parents in the community demanding they leave the girl confined to home, lest she infect others. Helicopters swirled. Paparazzi camped out.

A month went by, with no end to the madness in sight, when the postal carrier delivered a large envelope via registered mail. Upon signing for it, the parents looked at the return address: International Institute of Frownology, New York City.

Sitting down together to open the envelope, they discovered with both fear and hope that the end to this smiling saga may finally be near. Together they read:

Dear Sir and Madame:

Upon reading about your child’s condition in the New York Times, I write to offer you an opportunity, and along with it, hope. I am the founding director of the International Institute of Frownology. Over the past 20 years, we have successfully treated literally thousands upon thousands of children similar to your daughter. I invite you to bring your smiling daughter to the I.I.F. for a full evaluation, and I can guarantee that we will have her frowning within a week’s time. Please contact me at your earliest convenience to set up an appointment.


Dr. Sidney Freidheinz, M.D.

And so it was that the very next morning the girl and her parents boarded a non-stop train to New York City. Dr. Freidheinz and a gaggle of camera crews and reporters were there to greet them as they got off the train at Grand Central Station. They were whisked off into a limousine and within minutes were seated in the evaluation room at the I.I.F.

After signing the necessary documents, the parents bid their daughter farewell. Tears filled their eyes as they shook hands with Dr. Freidheinz and said goodbye.

“Do not worry, mom and dad,” assured the doctor. “Your daughter will be returned to you in a few days, well adjusted and frowning.”

For the next seven days the little girl underwent countless tests and procedures. Her favorite doll was taken from her. She was berated for smiling. She was alternately shown images of smiling faces and broken toys so as to reprogram her mind using associative conditioning. She was taken on a tour of the streets of New York City to see selfishness in action. She was even forced to sit in front of a dozen television monitors, each playing a 24/7 cycle of news. This latter procedure she found curious, even a little bit neat, especially considering some of those very news programs showed her smiling face. She simply smiled back at herself!

Dr. Freidheinz grew more frustrated each day that went by without a frown. On the seventh day, resigned that he had failed, he sent the little girl away. An ambulance drove her all the way back to her home. The sirens were silenced, for this was no emergency. The girl was a lost cause.

That night, her parents sat in bed as distraught and desperate as they had ever been. The girl lay sleeping in the next room.

Nearly hysterical, her mother reached for the holy book sitting on her nightstand and read the first verse her eyes came upon. The words read:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

She closed her eyes and found herself imitating her daughter – a smile came to her face. It felt good, and she held it there. It had been so long since she smiled. Grabbing her husband by the hand, they ran to their daughter’s room and peaked down at her.

In the glow of the nightlight, they saw these words on her face, and they repeated them aloud:

“Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

“What is a smile but the body’s incarnation of faith, hope, and love?” they thought. Then they smiled, and went back to bed in each other’s arms.

When the child awoke at dawn, they took her by the hand and ventured toward the door.

No longer afraid, they opened it, ready to show the world faith, hope and love.

Their daughter’s malady may be infectious, and it may set off an epidemic of worldwide proportions, but that was a chance they were willing to take…

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