By Gisele Ingabire
When I was younger, I made up a game that I always loved to play. I called it “The Smiling Game.” I was only 5 years old at the time, so the rules were very simple: get someone to smile without saying a word. I started playing this game because I really liked seeing people happy and I felt a sense of accomplishment knowing I was the one who helped generate their smile. It sort of felt like a superpower. At 5 years old, there was only so much I could do. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t walk down the street by myself. I couldn’t even reach the kitchen sink without a step stool. But despite all the things I couldn’t do, being able to make people smile helped remind me of all the things I could do. So every morning, I would wake up and set a goal for how many people I wanted to share a smile with.
I continued playing this game for a few years until I learned about this neat little thing called “body language.” You probably already know about this magical concept, but I got to learn it from my older sister. She explained that body language could give you the ability to understand what a person is thinking or feeling without them having to say a word. As a shy kid who refrained from speaking as much as humanly possible, I found this new concept very intriguing. One day, I got curious what my body language said about me, so I asked my older sister. She said, “I can always tell when you’re in a conversation you don’t want to be in. You’re never fully facing the person. You’re sort of sideways, as if you’re ready to jump ship as soon as a moment in the conversation presents itself. And would it kill you to at least pretend to smile?” That last part stung a little cause I thought after all my rounds of “The Smiling Game,” I would have been a pro at smiling. This conversation made me realize that body language is not just limited to examining other people, but examining yourself as well.
On top of being transformational in a personal sense, body language allowed me to add a bit more zest to my smiling game. Instead of setting an arbitrary number that I wanted to reach, I tried to make the smiles shared more organic. Instead of thinking, how can I meet my smiling quota today? I thought how can I give someone an opportunity to smile today? It was through this shift in thinking that I was able to connect with people a lot better. I was now consciously making the effort to acknowledge that they may be sad or upset and trying to understand the root of their situation before seeing if I might be able to help be the ray of sun peaking through a parade of clouds. Sometimes, conversations would reveal that someone’s “clouds” weren’t just a bad day, but months or even years of pain. At this point, I would begin thinking, how can I give them an opportunity to heal? It was really this concept of healing that became a game changer for me. Google defines healing as “the process of making or becoming sound or healthy again.” Notice the word “process,” implying that healing doesn’t just happen overnight—it takes time. But it’s also achievable, hence the word “again.” And I’m not limiting healing to the emotional sense, but also the physical sense.
As a future pediatrician, I know I’m going to see a lot of people in pain or upset, but they are coming into my office because they are looking for an opportunity to heal. I also chose children as my target audience because I want to give them plenty of opportunities to stay healthy so they can focus on opportunities to grow their minds and dreams. I don’t want children worrying about all the things they physically can’t do, but rather all the great things they can. Even if it’s as simple as giving someone the opportunity to smile.
Ever since I was a child, I loved stories. My mother would read me countless bedtime tales when I was young, and after I immigrated to America from Bangladesh, I often found myself buried in a book because it was easier to get lost in fantasy worlds with fictional characters than to confront the foreignness of my new home or the faces around me. Now as an adult, I am proud that I am at least a little braver than I once was. Years of forcing myself to reach out and get involved in my community and later on campus have made talking to people less difficult than it once was. Unfortunately, the busier schedule now also means that the natural bookworm in me has little time to get lost in a traditional book like before. So, I’ve had to be creative and search for stories in unconventional places and in unconventional ways.
Not everyone is meant to be a writer, that much is true. But in my time as a nurse aide (albeit only eight months), I have come to find that some of the best stories are told by ordinary people. As I work in a rehabilitation clinic, it is always exciting to watch patients who previously could not move, walk on their own again in a matter of weeks, thanks to therapy, a supportive network, and their own determination and effort. Hearing from some patients as they work to regain their capabilities is always inspiring, and I strive to be just as hardworking and optimistic as they are. But for other patients, there is no recovery, no return path to normalcy.
For these individuals, I cannot do much but be present and listen. It is actually one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and a privilege I hold dear because I am aware of how difficult it is to be vulnerable around strangers. But I have also come to appreciate how comforting it can be for them to open up to someone. The few minutes I take to ask patients about their day and listen to them talk about their families, their goals, their lives beyond the hospital, is just me being friendly. Not everyone cares, but for some, my efforts make enough of an impression that they recall our exchanges fondly whenever I come to see them. So in between tasks, I try to make time to talk to my patients. Whatever their prognosis is, I am thankful to be there for them. Even if I cannot do much to improve their overall condition, I can at least listen, and that itself can make all the difference to a patient’s outlook on their recovery.
Here at UConn, I deal with a different kind of story – that is, the story being told, and now actively being written by me, through research. Switching out a pen for a micropipette and a library for the NCBI database, I coauthor a mystery in which I am a detective. The mystery: how does the gut microbiome affect liver health? It’s a question that has come to dominate my research experience ever since I joined the Blesso lab in the Nutritional Sciences Department sophomore year, and one I am not sure I have the answer to as I prepare my honors thesis, nor one I expect to know the answer to even after graduation in May. It’s a frustrating situation getting insignificant results and not knowing the answer; I’m not used to not getting answers as a student. But as my PI reminds me time and again, this is an open-ended tale. As more evidence is compiled by many scientists across the world over time, the story will build, but the mystery itself may never be fully resolved. I still cross my fingers hoping that sooner or later, I will encounter an exciting detail that furthers the field tremendously. But for now, I’ve learned to be proud of my involvement (however small) in the development of this global story of human curiosity and intellect.
Being an ambitious full-time student leaves little time for reading books that are not the required course readings. Even if I found time to travel to the library, most are closed now anyways, thanks to the pandemic. But that has not stopped me from seeking out stories and feeding my inner bookworm. Whether happy or sad, complete or incomplete, I want to hear them all. But more importantly, I want to be a part of building those stories – stories of human ambition and achievement. The future is unpredictable and unwritten, but I am my own author, and this story will have a happy ending. “The End” (for now…)