I prefer people who smile. Maybe it says something about me, or maybe it’s universal, but I’ve always found it easier to deal with people whose face lights up when they talk, people who make me feel supported, people who respond to what I have to say with more than a grump or a grimace.

Give me a smile, and I’ll come to see you again; I’ll reciprocate with smiles of my own, perhaps even with gifts or favors.

Give me a frown or ignore me, and I’ll be intimidated. I’ll think four times before making another contact; even then, I may have to force myself to say hello or visit. I may even turn the other way when I see you coming.

And what a shame that is, because smiles can be so superficial. Because people with frowns, or just plain expressionless faces, usually are as sincere or as friendly as those whose demeanor exudes warmth. They clearly have as much to teach me.

Thinking back across life’s many years, it occurs to me that in almost every instance the dour ones have helped me grow at least as much as the warm ones have, often more.

I recall Bernie, a professor who drove me up many walls with his cynical, sometimes nasty (always smile-less) attacks on my views. To this day, I argue with him often, even though we’ve not communicated for years. His mind was powerful; his words were sharp, his ideas even sharper. And how he intimidated me! I still think he was wrong about many things. And I wish he had been less sarcastic. But there is no question that all of my arguing with him–internally more often than outwardly–has made me a better thinker. I’d never recommend him for a favorite teacher list, but that says bad things about me, because his challenges have made me grow more than the plaudits of those I’d be more likely to nominate.

A colleague named Glen comes to mind next. If Bernie sent me up walls, Glen drove me to wit’s end. I didn’t simply disagree with his views; I felt oppressed by him–threatened and put down. And I avoided talking to him, even though he chaired my department. If truth be told, however, I owe him many of the things that have landed me where I am today. He too made me think deeply, painfully, about what I thought and believed. He made me defend my views. He gave me examples of how to be an effective teacher, for many students loved him. And he pushed me, unknowingly, into larger worlds where I could grow in unanticipated ways.

Then there was Ed, a journalist I initially found it hard to talk to. With Ed, there were no ideological disagreements, no nastiness or arrogance. He was just inexpressive and quiet–smile-less!–the kind of person to whom I found it difficult to reach out. But how glad I am that got to know him. Beneath that quiet surface lay one of the most interesting men I have known: a man driven by a passion for justice, a man brimming with unexpected interests, a man skilled with the pen, a man more loyal than a brother. My life has been enriched by his friendship in ways beyond counting, but I’d not have gotten to know him if I’d followed my instincts.

Bob Thompson said in a recent Lake Street Church sermon: “God is in those who force us to stretch.” For me, the non-smilers fit that description.

I’m insecure enough as a human being that I’ll continue to gravitate toward those who smile a lot and talk easily. But I’ll do that at my peril, as Bernie, Glen, Ed, and a hundred more have taught me.