A Civil Society

I am from the Midwest, where it is common to say “Hello” or “Good morning” as you pass someone on the street, where it is considered common courtesy to smile at strangers. When I moved to New York, my first stop was the grocery store, unfortunately, at 5 pm. I learned quickly, after apologizing and smiling at everyone whose basket I’d accidentally bumped into, that New Yorkers take a very different approach to acknowledging strangers: ignore and push past them, even if they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Excuse me.” Rudeness, it turns out, is more efficient, yet the lack of common courtesy has far-reaching and incisive implications: it normalizes a general lack of compassion and seeing human beings fundamentally as inconveniences.

Our culture would benefit from reinstating common values in public life, values that encourage kindness and connection. The Common Good is lacking now, and we see the toxic effects of this in government, in media, and online. Selfishness, meanness, vapidity, dishonesty pervade our political and cultural worlds. Though the task ahead of us is great, and though we are struggling as a society to articulate a constructive way forward toward justice, mercy, and compassion, we can begin to repair the world at home, in our immediate communities, by choosing common courtesy and civility over silence and convenience.

Civility is simple and inclusive. Civility requires kindness in the ordinary moments of our lives. Civility asks that we treat all people with respect. That means no pushing past the homeless man who asks us for spare change without at least looking him in the eye. That means waiting for the mother with the stroller to get out of the subway with patience. That means treating those we contact with kindness (not annoyance) and our full attention. That means holding the door for the person behind us. That means forgiving the person who accidentally spills coffee on us as we are running to work.

Of course, we all fall short of this ideal. Something else might interfere with our best intentions or cloud our civility with negativity, like a fight with a loved one or a piece of disappointing news. Instead of compartmentalizing our messy emotions, we might be short with the person from the phone company or impatient with the thick group of well-meaning tourists walking slowly in front of us. It happens, and we must be gentle with ourselves. We’re not angels. We turn away from love and kindness when we are stressed and stimulated. However, civility should be the rule, not the exception. The ideal of civility should be preserved as an expectation for our behavior. Impoliteness, inconsideration should be aberrations and when they happen, called out into the light.

Civility, another way of saying common kindness, would benefit all relationships, everything from our closest connections to international politics. Kindness is not weakness; kindness is courageous. Civility, respect, compassion, and love are the strongest expressions of the best parts of us. If more of us set out to walk with this integrity every day, we would become less afraid of each other.

By extending daily lines of kindness to the people we meet, we begin to repair the tears in our communities. Through right action, we slowly make it possible for responsibility, accountability, and generosity to rise in public. We clarify and renew hope for reinstating the Common Good to build a thriving, just, compassionate society founded on the belief that all human beings matter, that their pain, experiences, and existence matter. Civility reminds us to notice people, to pay attention to the life in front of us, and acknowledge the divine spark in others that mirrors the divine spark within us.

One day, an elderly woman sitting next to me on the subway asked for directions. After I’d helped, she smiled back at me, took my hand and said, “Stay safe, sweetheart.” Wordsworth called moments like this woman, a stranger, wishing me well, “Nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” Small acts of civility transform us and help us to remember to be kinder and softer. Small acts of civility restore our faith in humanity when we witness someone else’s kindness. We would be better together, if we made more room and more time for one another.