Interactions can influence others for good

Published 9:00 am Sunday, November 8, 2015

Live United by Ann Austin

Can a smile really make a difference in someone’s life? I believe so.

Ann Austin

Ann Austin

Years ago when I was studying abroad in Norway, I was far away from home and all that I knew. In many ways I felt isolated and disconnected from the people I loved, even though I was surrounded by people who would become good friends. It was a hard time, especially since 9/11 occurred a month after we arrived. It felt like the world was ending — or at least the world as I knew it.

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I didn’t realize it, because I felt numb for a while, but I was in need of genuine connection with another human being. Life seemed empty or like there was no future — it was hard to be so far away from some kind of normalcy.

Through some force of destiny, as I was walking home from class one evening, I came across a person walking the other direction and felt compelled to interact somehow with him/her. In Norway daily interactions weren’t often “Minnesota nice” — especially in the cold months. Usually people would revert to the warmth of their homes or the hoods of their coats if they did happen to go outside.

This person had his/her hood drawn and was looking down. As I approached I didn’t expect any kind of interaction, though this is what I desperately needed to recognize some hope in humanity that evening.

Just as we passed, the person looked up and completely accepted the smile and greeting I presented, with the most genuine, glowing smile. It was such a profound spiritual experience for me, that I still can’t determine if the person was male or female — all I saw was the smile, surrounded by dark clothing and a hood. They were a bright light in the darkness I was experiencing and re-engaged the light in my own heart. I had hope again — and that seemingly simple interaction, that took no longer than a few seconds, possibly changed the course of my own life.

So, yes, a smile can make all the difference in the world.

We tend to trivialize our interactions with other people or think our own acts of kindness and compassion are taken for granted.

Yet, at the end of our lives, these are the interactions we recall and can make a difference in our ability to accept the life that we have led.

As I go about my work on a daily basis, I try not to forget how my interactions can influence someone else. It is so important to behave ethically and do the work that needs to be done, but it is equally important to engage in authentic connection with the people around us. The glow of our hearts is contagious.

As we enter the dark winter months, I encourage everyone to embrace the warmth that comes from within and to let that warmth and light shine on others. It’s the best gift we can offer.


Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.