Local Brings Smiles to the Community

Photo: Benjamin Smythe holds up a sign in front of Sather Gate in an attempt to fulfill his personal quota of making one person smile every day.
Adam Romero/Photo
Benjamin Smythe holds up a sign in front of Sather Gate in an attempt to fulfill his personal quota of making one person smile every day.

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You're perfect.

At least that is what Berkeley resident Benjamin Smythe tells people every day - and he believes it.

Since August, Smythe, 35, has sat on the bridge by Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus, holding his cardboard sign and smiling at passersby. He has no agenda, only a quota of making one person smile every day.

The idea came to him eight years ago from a homeless man in Laguna Beach who told everyone who walked by that they were perfect. Smythe never forgot that man, and when he was having a bad day five years later, he decided to deliver the message himself by holding a sign reading "you're perfect" while meditating.

"It just felt so great to tell the truth," he said.

Smythe, who spent his childhood in the suburbs in Connecticut, said he has not always had confidence in himself. But through any struggles he has faced, he has remembered how his mother, his role model, raised him to believe he could not only do whatever he wants, but that he deserves to be happy.

"She told me that my whole life, so I don't really have any doubt," he said. "I'm a normal person, I go through ups and downs, but this is my life, too."

Smythe admits holding the sign did - and still does - make him feel vulnerable, but he has learned to embrace the uncertainty of how others will react.

"I got to burn through all kinds of judgments and stereotypes," he said. "I never know who's going to say something or smile. I look at somebody now, and I just see them."

Smythe does not limit himself to campus. In fact, nearly each day he goes around the city and sits on street corners, often holding his sign beside rush hour traffic because that's when "the message makes the most sense."

According to freshman Kevin Sairafian, Smythe has a reputation among students. Sairafian remembers seeing Smythe on his first day of classes last semester and said he finally got to thank him a few weeks ago.

"He's not doing it to push any social awareness," Sairafian said. "It's nice to just have that moment where you can't help but smile."

One of Smythe's favorite parts about holding his sign is meeting new people. Remembering a boy with an oxygen tank who thanked him for his message, Smythe still gets choked up.

Yet making others feel good is only a by-product of his true motivation: having fun himself. Although most people appreciate his message, Smythe holds his sign for his own benefit.

"I love the people who flip me off, because those are the ones who teach me really to let go. If that's not perfect, then I don't have a right to hold this sign," Smythe said. "Who am I to say people have to like my sign?"

Disagreement over his message reached an extreme about a month ago when he and his friend received a death threat online. Smythe, who posts videos on YouTube sharing his message of self-love - "not really teaching because I can't teach you what you are," he said - has since been more cautious when putting himself in the public eye.

Yet even though he was threatened, he continues to spread his message with his large following on the Internet - he has over 500 subscribers on YouTube and over 152,000 video views.

For the next year, Smythe is taking a yearlong break from work - previous jobs include working as a yoga instructor, a teacher and a cook - to go on tour after he posted a video saying he would visit anyone who paid for his travel expenses. Within 24 hours, Smythe said he had to turn down offers.

He plans to spend the year in various cities in the United States, Australia and countries across Europe, spending a week with each family, and together they will hold his sign.

Smythe explains his outlook on life with an analogy: Everyone jumped out of a plane when they were born. There is no parachute, and everyone will hit the ground, when they die.

"I can either laugh the whole way down, or I can cry the whole way down," Smythe said. "I think that loving myself is part of that laughing the whole way down."


Mary Susman covers Berkeley communities. Contact her at [email protected]

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