Many Americans are familiar with The Little Prince, a wonderful book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This is a whimsical and fabulous book and works as a children’s story as well as a thought-provoking adult fable.  Far fewer are aware of Saint-Exupery’s other writings, novels and short stories.

Saint-Exupery was a fighter pilot who fought against the Nazis and was killed in action. Before World War II, he fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists. He wrote a fascinating story based on that experience entitled The Smile (Le Sourire). It is this story which I’d like to share with you now. It isn’t clear whether or not he meant this to be autobiographical or fiction. I choose to believe it to be the former.

He said that he was captured by the enemy and thrown into a jail cell. He was sure that from the contemptuous looks and rough treatment he received from his jailers he would be executed the next day. From here, I’ll tell the story as I remember it in my own words.

“I was sure that I was to be killed. I became terribly nervous and distraught. I fumbled in my pockets to see if there were any cigarettes which had escaped their search. I found one and because of my shaking hands, I could barely get it to my lips. But I had no matches, they had taken those.

“I looked through the bars at my jailer. He did not make eye contact with me. After all, one does not make eye contact with a thing, a corpse.

I called out to him ‘Have you got a light, por favor?’ He looked at me, shrugged and came over to light my cigarette.

“As he came close and lit the match, his eyes inadvertently locked with mine. At that moment, I smiled. I don’t know why I did that. Perhaps it was nervousness, perhaps it was because, when you get very close, one to another, it is very hard not to smile. In any case, I smiled. In that instant, it was as though a spark jumped across the gap between our two hearts, our two human souls. I know he didn’t want to, but my smile leaped through the bars and generated a smile on his lips, too. He lit my cigarette but stayed near, looking at me directly in the eyes and continuing to smile.

“I kept smiling at him, now aware of him as a person and not just a jailer. And his looking at me seemed to have a new dimension, too. ‘Do you have kids?’ he asked.

” ‘Yes, here, here.’ I took out my wallet and nervously fumbled for the pictures of my family. He, too, took out the pictures of his ninos and began to talk about his plans and hopes for them. My eyes filled with tears. I said that I feared that I’d never see my family again, never have the chance to see them grow up. Tears came to his eyes, too.

“Suddenly, without another word, he unlocked my cell and silently led me out. Out of the jail, quietly and by back routes, out of the town.   There, at the edge of town, he released me. And without another word, he turned back toward the town.

“My life was saved by a smile.”

Yes, the smile – the unaffected, unplanned natural connection between people. I tell this story in my work because I’d like people to consider that underneath all the layers we construct to protect ourselves, our dignity, our titles, our degrees, our status and our need to be seen in certain ways – underneath all that, remains the authentic, essential self. I’m not afraid to call it the soul. I really believe that if that part of you and that part of me could recognize each other, we wouldn’t be enemies. We couldn’t have hate or envy or fear. I sadly conclude that all those other layers, which we so carefully construct through our lives, distance and insulate us from truly contacting others. Saint-Exupery’s story speaks of that magic moment when two souls recognize each other.

I’ve had just a few moments like that. Falling in love is one example. And looking at a baby. Why do we smile when we see a baby?  Perhaps it’s because we see someone without all the defensive layers, someone whose smile for us we know to be fully genuine and without guile.  And that baby-soul inside us smiles wistfully in recognition.


from Chicken Soup for the Soul, Copyright 1993 by Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen.