While our kids were growing up we often asked, “What do you say?” Which was to elicit the correct ‘thank you’ or ‘please’ or ‘I’m sorry’ response. Most parents probably remind their youngsters to say “thank you” or say “please” and hopefully good manners will never go out of style.
But manners without kindness seem artificial and insincere. Think: Eddie Haskell or Nellie Olson. Hideous creatures who spoke sweetly but never lovingly. Saying “may I please” and “thank you” are hollow gestures if there is no true appreciation or respect being offered.
I smile (and cringe a little) while remembering a time that our son was guilty of some offense inflicted on his sister. When I insisted he apologize, he declared with exasperation, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” No – he wasn’t sorry. And no – he didn’t feel any remorse. Well maybe he was sorry because he got scolded but no real apology was extended to his sister. So I failed as a parent. I failed to teach him that saying the words without meaning them was wrong. And I am sorry about that. I suppose I should apologize to my kids for focusing on the manners and not the behavior all those years ago but that episode enlightened me. I stopped trying to be so concerned that THE RIGHT WORDS were being used and instead tried to focus on the feelings. Again, in full disclosure, I failed at this more often than I care to remember. But I tried.
Sadly many adults were probably once children whose parents taught them how to use good manners but failed to teach them why to use good manners. Sometimes I encounter folks who are polite and mannerly but just under the surface you can feel the contempt or the disregard that they have for others. The formalities in business and social settings require that we remain civil and courteous at all times but the indifference, the malice, the antagonism, and the prejudice is often palpable.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate good manners, courtesy and respect. At times I’m frightened that in our “me first” society manners have become passé. And the only way to ‘get ahead’ is to ‘jump ahead’. We live in a world where we put our own needs and desires first regardless of who we must step on to get what we want.
Still, politeness with no real consideration intended for the individual is just dishonest. As far as I’m concerned it’s even worse when the insincerity of manners is somehow an excuse for taking advantage of others. A formality that carries no thought of human kindness or attentiveness is just a meaningless action. I know that I am guilty of offering empty manners. I’m certain that I have held the door open or waited my turn grudgingly. There is no doubt that I have casually said “how are you?” countless times without really wanting to hear how anyone was. I say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” robotically, not even making eye contact with the person at the market or service counter. While learning my manners, I may have forgotten the most important thing – kindness.
Kindness doesn’t require undying affection or even mild appreciation. Kindness doesn’t mean that you and I have to agree on anything. Kindness isn’t a guarantee that we will ever be friends. But kindness requires selflessness and sincerity and connection.
Manners are nice but please save the pretty words and just show me that you care. And I’ll try to do the same.
Peace (and you’re welcome),
P.S. Here’s a song to lighten the mood.
I have a friend (truth be told, she’s my daughter’s friend but because I have an awesome daughter, she shares her friends with me and I’m the better for it). This mother of two young daughters recently witnessed a pretty severe auto accident. I believe she, with her daughters in the car, came upon the scene pretty soon after it had happened. It was obvious, to Mom anyway, that this was an accident with serious injuries perhaps even fatalities. Because traffic was stalled to allow emergency and police assistance, their view of the accident was prolonged. To the credit of the emergency personnel the victims of the crash were shielded from curious onlookers.
While contemplating the gravity of the situation, the 8 year-old daughter began to pray the “Hail Mary”. All Catholic school children learn this prayer and most can recite it from memory. It’s an ancient prayer imploring Jesus’ mother Mary to pray for us and all those in need of God’s mercy, especially those near death. This act of kindness was not prompted by Mom nor was it in any way expected. Mom’s concern at that moment was protecting her daughters from viewing possible carnage. What happened next was the five year-old daughter praying an “Our Father” or the “Lord’s Prayer” for those strangers on the roadside. Again unprompted and unexpected. Those beautiful girls witnessed to their mother in a simple yet profound way.
This story gives me hope for our future.
In the atmosphere of contentious and nasty political battles, where we have to shield our children and grandchildren from each news story or risk the possibility of having to explain why someone would say or do what is being reported. In a time where communities are torn apart due to racism and poverty, in a world where we live in fear of terrorism, it is comforting to know that these two young girls brought Jesus to those strangers on the roadside. They didn’t need to know who they might be voting for; they didn’t need to verify the color of their skin or their religious affiliation; it didn’t matter if the inured were young or old or rich or poor. These girls gave of themselves without any expectation of repayment or reward.
“A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:30-37
We can continue to hate. We can live in fear. We can choose sides. We can fight and fight and fight…
Or we can love. Thanks for the beautiful example girls and for giving me hope again.
I walk a lot. I try to get up each morning and walk 4 miles around a nearby lake. When I’m traveling or on vacation, I’ll walk the beach or in a park. Not bad for a 61 year-old I suppose. I do it to stay physically fit but lately I find that it probably benefits my mental and spiritual fitness even more than my tired, old-ish body.
What I have discovered on my sunrise walks is that other walkers (and runners, and cyclists) aren’t likely to make eye contact. I know that we live in a world of fear; we’re afraid of terrorists; we’re afraid of violent crimes; we’re afraid of sexual predators; we’re afraid of identity theft; we’re afraid of yet-to-be-named diseases; we’re afraid of immigrants; we’re afraid of other religions; we’re afraid of other cultures; we’re afraid of people who don’t look (or act) like us. Some of these fears are legitimate; some I believe are heightened by political interests and hatred.
But I live (and walk) in the squeaky-clean suburbs. And there should really be very little to fear. My fellow walkers should certainly have no fear of me. I’m startled by the occasional bunny rabbit or squirrel that will dart across the trail. And I might cringe if I see a snake slither past or if a frog jumps out of the weeds but other people don’t make me afraid. And I will do no harm to them.
Recently I’ve tried to say “good morning” or “hello” to anyone who dares to make eye contact with me on my morning jaunts. The reactions and responses have been interesting. Some will offer a downcast or sideways glance with a feeble “hi”, as if to protect themselves from whatever evil may be lurking behind my benign-looking, grandfatherly exterior. Others look away quickly with no response at all. Some will actually return a friendly “good morning” or “hello”. The runners and joggers are usually very serious about their business, as if pausing for a quick glance might somehow throw off their body rhythms. The cyclists are often struggling to keep their balance or speed (or whatever) and seem incapable of the multi-tasking required to say anything while riding – I might get a nod. Older folks like myself are twice as likely to smile and acknowledge me. Young women (and perhaps rightly so) often avoid eye contact and stay focused on their exercise (and I suppose keep a ready hand on their can of mace). Young men are the least likely to speak or even look at me (probably dreading the likelihood that they might be staring at their futures).
Walking has given me the opportunity to S L OW D O W N and appreciate the sunrise. To thank God for creation. It helps me clear my head and prepare for my day. It allows me quiet time to pray and be thankful for this journey of life. I like to see the flowers (and weeds) along the trail. I enjoy seeing the squirrels and rabbits and frogs and yes, even the occasional snake. I would never notice those things while driving. But mostly I’m grateful for the few friendly human encounters I have each day.
Some of us who are regular walkers (or runners) have now also become regular “smilers” and “hello-ers”. I’d like to think that this ‘old man walking’ has had some small part in that. I’ll keep smiling and hello-ing. Who knows? The smile that I share might be the only smile that one of my fellow walkers will receive the entire day. Kindness given is always returned.
And none of us is a stranger to God.
When our youngest child was in school I dreaded parent-teacher conferences. His teachers always regaled us with his “litany of sins”. The teacher(s) felt compelled to tell us all the things that he had done wrong behaviorally and all of the things he hadn’t done academically. It was exhausting. And a little embarrassing. And more than a little disheartening. After all he was a very bright kid with a quick wit and tons of energy. Surely there was something good that they could tell us about our son. Then a friend (who was a family therapist by profession) suggested that we ask the teacher at the next conference to “tell us something good about our son”. And I did. And the teacher was stumped. Her response: “When he is disruptive or fails to complete his assignments he always takes his punishment well.” Wow – really??? That’s the best she could do???
But I kept asking. I asked her again and again. And I asked every teacher he had after that one.
Later he was blessed with better teachers who challenged him and developed his natural curiosity and helped channel his creativity into more positive results and he excelled, eventually becoming a National Merit Semi-Finalist.
And that’s whole thing – isn’t it? Tell me something good. Tell me that you like me. Tell me that I have value. Tell me that I matter. Tell me that I can be the best me that I can be. Tell me that my life matters.
We hear a lot in the media today and from politicians and from clergy about being PRO-LIFE. But how can we be pro-life if we’re not supporting the life that we have around us? Who decides which life is worthwhile? Who decides whose life matters? Is it only unborn babies? Shouldn’t we be supporting life in all forms? If we believe in a Creator, then isn’t all creation sacred?
So tell someone something good.
Whether it’s the old lady who slows down the ‘express lane’ at the supermarket because she actually writes a check or it’s the snarky teenager working at the convenience store whose response is never thank you but usually “here ya go” or “no prob” – Next time you encounter them, try smiling; try affirming their lives with a bit of kindness. When it’s the screaming toddler on a too-full flight or the rude telemarketer or the obnoxious co-worker, try to give them dignity; try to leave them with some peace.
Often it’s just the little things that make the difference: the smile, the kind word, a simple courtesy.
Sometimes we can even tell someone something good without saying a word. And we can make the world a better place one person at a time…