The smile that defined 2020

Updated: Jan 10

On November 11, 2020, Ding Zhen was on his way to buy instant noodles in his hometown of Li Tang (Garze Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Sichuan Province) when a photographer decided to capture his "sweet but wild" smile. Little did they know that a seven-second posted video on social media will change space around them, potentially forever.


The smile too Ding Zhen (adapted picture from internet)

A month after the video, Ding Zhen has become a cultural ambassador of his land and has been quoted by the Chinese foreign ministry and other countries, including Japan and Korea. "Someone smiled, and we are getting tons of projects in our region," said a friend who works in a social sector in the same region. A smile that changed her world for good.


"We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do." Mother Teresa proclaimed. Where does this simple smile come from? Would the cascading impact of Ding Zhen's smile be the same if he would have tried to pose?

The word which helps me find these answers is in Chinese Daoist philosophy, "Wu Wei." In a literal sense, Wu can be translated as without, whereas Wei can signify action or effort or force. Wu Wei, the art of non-doing, non-forcing, or effortless action, is based on the philosophy of following nature's course, following the flow.

In nature, everything has its time and place, and by connecting to the natural flow, we can participate without interfering. With its focus on simplicity and spontaneity, Wu Wei demands letting go of the things we are steadfastly holding and responds to "the situation of now," which we can only notice when we put our ego-driven plans aside. It is about perceiving when to retreat and when to act, just like Judo where the opponent saves the energy to hit at the right moment. The strategic passivity is, not laziness, an invitation to be in the flow of things and move with the currents rather than against them.

The currents of nature flowed unpredictably in 2020. Most of us were forced to go inside, both literally and metaphorically. We were demanded to let go of our plans as the fury of nature unraveled with people losing their financial groundings and loved ones. However, we witnessed a new beauty in the pandemic with animals coming out on streets, the skies becoming clear in polluted areas, and humans asking the more profound questions on their being outpouring creativity of small deeds. We sang from our balconies, clapped for front-line workers, and smiled through other's smiles. Whether through fear or connections, we felt more human.

Rather than controlling the flow, in 2020, we learned the art of letting go and flowing with what comes. 2020 has been a great mirror of our vulnerabilities, humanness, and our place in the eco-system. The year in which a village boy's humanly natural smile replaced the grandiosity of the carefully crafted human-made cryptic smile of the Mona Lisa.

I would say this smile has defined 2020: humane, natural, and of small deeds.


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