While driving, did you ever want to switch lanes, but were prevented from doing so by the heavy traffic? How did you feel when someone recognizing your problem slowed down, waved to you, and let you in? Your mounting frustration was instantly transformed into relief and thankfulness, wasn’t it? Later, when you saw someone else in a similar jam, didn’t you also slow down and let them in? You were sharing and spreading the kindness you received from another. How do you suppose the driver you just helped will act? Most likely, they will do likewise. Look at the power we have to sweeten the lives of others! As Christian Nevell Bovee said, “The small courtesies sweeten life, the greater, ennoble It.”
Sometimes, the seemingly trivial acts we perform are the most important. Courtesy is an example. We refer to it in different ways, such as civility, good manners, good behaviour, good conduct, politeness, decency, respect for others, thoughtfulness, kindness, gentleness, and consideration. No matter what we call it, courtesy is NOT trivial. Here is how Edmund Burke describes it, “Manners are of more importance than laws. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”
Are those words too strong? Not at all. Think about it. Would a considerate person steal? A kind student, bully? A thoughtful person, cheat? A respectful person, murder? No, because manners and morals flow from the same principle: consideration for others. So, as we raise the level of courtesy in society, we lower the crime rate! Paul Johnson agrees. For on February 15, 1997 he wrote in New Zealand’s The Spectator, “We tend to think today that good manners and right morals are entirely separate. But the truth is, they are a continuum. Bad manners and high crime rates are all part of the same disease.”
Unfortunately, TV, movies, the media and merchandisers often portray rudeness and aggressiveness as being “in.” Not wanting to be left out and wishing to be “cool,” the young blindly follow the examples espoused by their heroes and heroines. Who can blame them? They don’t know any better. They have yet to learn that rudeness is the imitation of strength practiced by the weak. They don’t understand that polite people are enamored with life while those who are rude are bitter. Our manners, then, are the clothes we wear. It reveals what type of person we are. We need to teach the young by our examples that the strong are kind. The strong reach out and connect with others. They unite, uplift, and improve the world. Those who act kindly ennoble life.
How are we to practice courtesy? There are as many ways as there are moments in a day. Every encounter is an opportunity. Here are some examples.
Whenever someone treats you kindly, show your appreciation, express your gratitude, and offer your thanks. For as Seneca taught, “There is as much greatness of mind in acknowledging a good turn, as in doing it.”
Scatter the dark clouds of gloom and spread sunshine with your smile. Remember, a smile is a curved line that can straighten many problems.
Be as thoughtful as the 82-year-old woman who was more concerned about others than the pain she was in. “I may be in pain,” she said, “but I don’t have to be one.”
Recognize the achievements of others, not with shallow flattery, but with sincere and warm praise.
Respect the opinions and decisions of others, even if you disagree with them.
Here is some good advice in the form of a Persian proverb: “Treat your superior as a father, your equal as a brother, and your inferior as a son.”
Be a good friend. Express your good manners with your emotions. When your friends arrive, say, “At last!” And when they leave, say, “So soon?” When you treat your friends kindly, you will be greatly rewarded. St. Basil explains why, “He who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”
Treat others with respect. Treating royalty, political leaders, or movie stars with respect is a common occurrence, but treating beggars, the homeless, and ex-cons with respect is the mark of greatness. It is not only the downtrodden that need respect, it is our children, too. If we don’t already respect them for what they are, how can we help them become more than they are?
Act kindly toward others without expecting anything in return. To act in the expectation of a reward cancels out the kindness.
Instruct your children. For as R. Buckminster Fuller wrote, “Parents are usually more careful to bestow knowledge on their children rather than virtue, the art of speaking well rather than doing well; but their manners should be of the greatest concern.”
Respond to rudeness with kindness. For what better test of good manners is there than politely putting up with bad ones? We become kind by being kind. And when every act we do is a kind one, the world will rejoice.
Be gentle in your dealings with others. As someone else wrote, “To find out what others are feeling, don’t prod or poke. If you want to play with a turtle, you can’t get it to come out of its shell by prodding and poking it with a stick, you might kill it. Be gentle not harsh, hard or forceful.”
Cherish your family and reinforce it with courtesy. Oddly enough, we often treat strangers more politely than we do members of our own family. This has to stop, and we need to implement a policy of “courtesy begins at home.”
Never underestimate the power of your small acts of kindness. They are the pebbles which form a solid foundation for our civilization. Without them, society will collapse.
A brief reflection on the world situation clearly reveals that our potential for evil is unlimited. Despite all our frailties, however, we are kind most of the time. That’s what makes humanity so great. But there remains considerable room for improvement, and the responsibility is ours.
In Han Suyin‘s novel, A Many Splendored Thing, she writes, “There is nothing stronger in the world than gentleness.” Notwithstanding her words, and despite the wisdom handed down during the past 25 centuries, there are still people who fail to realize that gentleness is more powerful than force. Words are easily spoken and quickly forgotten, but images persist. That’s why the greatest teachers taught in parables, fables, and stories. To help bring home the difference between gentleness and force, here is the story of The Wind and the Sun, written by Aesop.
Once upon a time when everything could talk, the Wind and the Sun fell into an argument as to which was the stronger. Finally they decided to put the matter to a test; they would see which one could make a certain man, who was walking along the road, throw off his cape. The Wind tried first. He blew and he blew. The harder and colder he blew, the tighter the traveler wrapped his cape about him. The Wind finally gave up and told the Sun to try. The Sun began to smile and as it grew warmer and warmer, the traveler was comfortable once more. But the Sun shone brighter and brighter until the man grew so hot the sweat poured out of his face, he became weary, and seating himself on a stone, he quickly threw his cape to the ground. You see, gentleness had accomplished what force could not.
With just a few words, Persian poet Shaykh Muslih al-Din Sa’di Shirazi paints another useful picture: Use a sweet tongue, courtesy, and gentleness, and thou mayst manage to guide an elephant with a hair.” Such is the power of gentleness. On the other hand, force is futile because it offers a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Force is met with resistance. It represses, suppresses, and oppresses. Gentleness addresses the problem. It alleviates, mitigates, and obviates the pain of others.
It is appropriate to ask ourselves questions like, “How do I treat my family? Do I try to force them to comply with my wishes or does the warmth of my smile encourage them to work with me as a team? How do I handle my coworkers? Am I demanding or understanding? How do I interact with my neighbors? Am I curt and cold or compassionate and caring? How do I treat the belongings of my friends? Do I return everything I borrowed promptly and in the same condition it was in when I received it?
Yes, this is the perfect time to make a resolution to be gentle. Like Max Lucado, who has 28 million books in print, we can say, “Nothing is won by force. I choose to be gentle. If I raise my voice, may it be only in praise. If I clench my fist, may it be only in prayer. If I make a demand, may it be only of myself.”
When we treat others with gentleness, it shows them that we value and respect them. They may get upset and speak to us angrily, but our gentle answer will soothe their irritability and calm them down. Isn’t it true that only those with faults complain about the faults of others? So, the fewer faults we have, the greater our gentleness, tolerance, and compassion.
Gentleness is the mark of the spiritual person, one who sees the commonality of all. It is the recognition that despite our differences, we are all the same. It is easier for older people to be gentle, for their long experience has made them realize they are guilty of every fault they see in others; so, how can they hold it against them? True, we will not always agree with everyone all the time, but gentleness is the understanding that we can walk hand-in-hand without seeing eye-to-eye.
Let’s not wait until we are old to be gentle. Rather, today, let’s join in the prayer of Alexander Pope, “Teach me to feel another’s woe, to hide the fault I see; that mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me.” We climb the highest peak one step at a time, and we make a difference in the world one small act at a time. A gentle smile, an encouraging pat on the back, a word of praise, a friendly hand, a warm hug, and a tender look are small acts, which when added up have a huge impact on the lives of others. Gentleness is a way of life. It is the conduct of love. It is a balm that lessens the suffering of others. Blessed are the gentle who give of their time to help the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, the homeless, the needy, the mentally ill, and those in prison. May we learn from their examples.
Whether good or bad and whether right or wrong, our actions affect others. We set an example that helps shape their beliefs and behaviour. Like it or not, we are influencing the course of history. What type of world do we wish to have a hand in creating? One of hostility or one of harmony? One of hatred or one of honesty? The choice is ours. We can choose to walk on the path of gentleness. And as we walk on that path, let’s remember the words of another writer, “The tide recedes but leaves behind bright seashells on the sand; The sun goes down, but gentle warmth still lingers on the land; The music stops, and yet it echoes on in sweet refrains… For every gentle act that passes, something beautiful remains.”
When I was a thirteen year old student attending James Monroe High School in the Bronx, New York City, I had an English teacher students called “Mean Miss Williams.” In her early fifties and unmarried, Miss Williams treated every student curtly and coldly. She didn’t have any friends and my classmates disliked her.
At the time, I was in love. In love with life. And Miss Williams was part of the life I loved so much. So, every time I passed her on my way to class I would smile and say, “Good morning (or afternoon), Miss Williams!” Glaring, she would sternly scold me, “You know perfectly well you are not allowed to speak in the corridor; now be quiet!” I would just smile and say, “Sorry, Miss Williams!”
This went on every day: my warm greeting followed by her cold response. However, within a year, something remarkable occurred. Miss Williams had a change of behavior. Slowly, she became more pleasant to be around. She blossomed, as a flower does when exposed to the sun. Students stopped calling her mean. I was amazed by the change in Miss Williams. It was then that I discovered the power of kindness. It is a power we have to influence the world we inhabit.
The small acts of kindness we perform can create huge amounts of happiness in the lives of others. What a waste it would be to fail to use our power. There’s no need to be stingy with dispensing kindness, for unlike money, you won’t run out of it by giving it away. Just the opposite. The more you give away, the more you’ll receive.
Speaking eloquently on this subject, Princess Diana said, “Perhaps we’re too embarrassed to change or too frightened of the consequences of showing that we actually care. But why not risk it anyway? BEGIN TODAY! Carry out an act of kindness, with no expectation of reward or punishment. Safe in the knowledge that one day, someone somewhere might do the same for you.”
Professor Chuck Wall of Bakersfield College, California got fed up with the negativity appearing in the media. Every day he heard, read, or watched news reports of “random acts of violence.” Tired of learning about school bullies, road rage, and senseless attacks, he wondered why the media didn’t focus more on the positive. So, he coined the phrase, “Random Acts of Kindness” and encouraged members of his community to report on the acts of kindness they witnessed.
The story was picked up by the wire service and caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who invited Chuck Wall to appear on her show. Oprah encouraged her more than eleven million viewers to engage in “Random Acts of Kindness” to stop the ugly spread of violence in our society. Because of her show, churches, schools, and other organizations formed kindness groups in thousands of communities across the U.S.
Whether working alone or in a group, we can also contribute to the kindness movement. Once we realize that the absence of kindness is cruelty, and that kindness is the oil that takes the friction out of our relationships, it becomes clear how important it is. Don’t be discouraged if the recipient of your kindness, like Mean Miss Williams, doesn’t respond. The truth is, whether they show it or not, anyone who stands in the sun will feel the warmth and benefit. What acts of kindness should we perform? That’s easy, we should behave in a manner that we would like others to behave toward us.
Some would argue that man is cruel, but as Juvenal wrote nearly 2,000 years ago (translation by Hubert Creekmore), “Nature in giving tears to man, confessed that he had a tender heart; this is our noblest quality.”
Advice from John Wesley
Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can!
The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude by P. M. Forni
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