These are tough times.
So have said people throughout history. If you think about it, “these” have always been tough times, interspersed with fleeting moments of “good times,” followed with more tough times. It seems we’re destined to live through tough times. They’re supposed to build character in us. Provided we survive them. But the measure of our survival should be more than whether or not we make it through still breathing. Slugs breathe. We humans ought to be able to survive tough times with more than merely breathing. In the end, the true measure of our survival is how we interact with each other — how we treat one another.
A civilized nation’s survival depends on its civility. At first glance, it would be easy to assume civility has gone out the window in this country. Since it’s more interesting to hear about people being uncivil to each other, that’s the kind of news we get. Lots of it.
A recent evening’s news report started off with a car crash caused by a foolish teen driver. Next it was a murder caused by a foiled burglary attempt. Then it was a kidnapping. Followed by a scam story. The newscaster finally started the next story with the words, “And now, on the brighter side …” then shared the story of someone rescuing a dog from a water pipe.
Civility isn’t as interesting to us as the bad news. The problem is that someday it could be more interesting simply because it’s become such a rarity.
Being civil — kind — to one another isn’t generally accomplished in large crowds. It’s usually a one-on-one experience, most often spontaneous. It’s a moment when we suddenly face the option of doing something kind for someone, without time to plan it through, often with hardly time to even think on it. And it’s usually in acts so small that the news really couldn’t make something of it.
It’s stopping in our walk through the parking lot toward the store to take a cart from someone as they finish loading their groceries with a, “Here, I’ll take that for you.” It’s pulling the gloves off our hands to give them to a homeless person. It’s taking our neighbor’s garbage can to the curb. It’s holding a door for someone, smiling a crying kid in a shopping cart into curious silence, giving up our place in line or our seat on the bus to someone who needs it more. It’s snow shoveling the sidewalk all the way to the corner. It’s thanking a store clerk.
It’s smiling, even when we don’t feel like it. Especially when we don’t feel like it.
It’s writing Thank You cards for even the smallest acts — like my mom does. She’s likely felled an entire forest’s worth of trees to make the Thank You cards she’s written in over the years. In her world, no good deed, however small, goes unthanked. She has a thankful heart — and a happy heart. And that is no coincidence.
The curious nature of civility is you can’t give it without receiving something back. It’s more than just a good feeling. There’s something personally empowering about lifting ourselves above our natural tendencies in order to do a deed that demands something extra of us.
These are tough times. It’s natural for us to be irritated right now — heaven knows there are reasons aplenty. Nearly every person’s life is unsettled, usually by something we can do little about. But how we react to it — that is the part we do own. Particularly in the way we treat one another. We can choose to take our frustrations out on each other, which makes these even tougher times. Or, we can rise above that.
Incivility is contagious. But so is civility. It is not impossible for small, kind deeds to affect the larger population. When kindness is uncommonly returned for unkindness, well, that ripple grows faster than unkindness returned for unkindness. We can’t know how far that ripple will go — it could go all the way to the hearts that need to be turned the most.
Civility holds that kind of uncommon power.