I have a confession to make.
Not that I’m trying to place you, my reader, in the role of priest in a virtual confessional, mind you. I just think that its important to point out that I’m dealing with the issue about which I’m about to express concern.
It went down like this: I had to run an unexpected errand to pick up some carpentry supplies on Monday night. I was driving my wife’s car. I was irritated because I had had one of those days. Virginia is not the place to drive if you’re having a bad day, because everyone who is native to Virginia seems to experience difficulty with this concept of driving. This was proven by the gentleman in front of me who, while on a major artery of traffic, felt it appropriate to come to what was nearly a complete stop at a green light in order to let the car in the right turn lane make the turn, because apparently it hadn’t occurred to him to get into that same lane in order to make the turn. As I abruptly found myself in a position to test the reliability of my wife’s brakes, I pounded in vain to locate the horn in the dim light of dusk. When that failed, and the gentleman in the car gave me an accusing look, I did it. I lost control.
I gave him finger.
In retrospect, I have no idea what that guy’s night had been like, or even if he was, in fact, a Virginia driver. Perhaps he was following the vehicle in the turn lane, unfamiliar with the city and trying to not get separated. Who knows what might have caused him to drive that way? Yet, I found myself without mercy in that moment. It took only minutes after for me to be able to find that mercy, to want to retract the rude hand gesture. No matter how bad of a day I had had, he could easily have had worse.
The concern that I’m expressing here is that of a loss of civility.
Friday night, I was out with some friends for dinner and drinks, and ended up having a great conversation with a new acquaintance about film and theatre and literature and society. Specifically, the girl we had just met was pining over the fact that she hadn’t grown up in the thirties, because things were so much different then, and different for the better. I agreed. We talked about how everyone dressed with class, about how women were sexual without being (her word) “trashy,” about how the music was better, about how we were just more civil as a society.
Now, in my personal opinion, I don’t think the U.S. has ever done too terribly well at this whole civility thing. I guess we chose to let that go in favor of functionality when we rebelled against the crown. In any case, and whatever the cause of this downward cultural spiral (which could be the topic of a good dissertation, but certainly can’t fit within a blog post), we’re not as civil now as we were then. We’re more prone to violence, to a sense of entitlement to retribution. We’re more inclined to scream at each other and refuse to consider any perspective other than our own (as witnessed in recent political deadlocks). We’re less tolerant, and more judgmental. We’ve shed stains of certain forms of racism, only to begin to fall into others. We hunger for warfare.
What we don’t do well is talk softly. Or listen. Or empathize. Or, for that matter, consider anyone before ourselves. We ignore the communities around us in order to defend our individualism, and to “stay out of it” if we think something is wrong that we don’t want to make our problem. That’s how people end up lying deceased in their homes for days before the neighbors bother to investigate. That’s why our politicians have forgotten that they were elected to practice the art of compromise. That’s why we call each other hurtful and bigoted names instead of seeking first to understand. That’s why we watch reality television programs to judge others who end up taking their own lives.
That’s why we give the finger to the car in front of us who made a simple driving mistake, one that we’ve likely all made at some point or another.
I need to remember that my actions have repercussions, not only for myself, but for others. There are concentric circles moving out from us, and they cause the ripples of our actions to move others through this pond of life in which we co-exist. If I focused on smiling and picking up someone else’s bill, for example, instead of visually expressing my displeasure at the driver in front of me, those ripples can cause good, instead of ill. And, if I am to take my faith seriously, then I should be motivated to do exactly that.
The term “civility” has a Latin etymology. I’ve never taken Latin, but I understand it to mean (loosely) “what is proper to a citizen.” I wish that those of us who live in the U.S. would re-discover the concept of behaving “properly.” We seem to be under the misconception that this would involve living prudishly, or forsaking freedoms. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think it simply means considering others before ourselves, or at least at the same level that we consider ourselves.
We’re all human beings. We all have bad days and good opinions. We should all begin there in our interactions, use that as a staring point. I’m hoping I can model that for my daughter when she joins us soon.
Photo Attribution: whereisat