Courtesy today is an arcane word. Its practice is a lost art.
Society has grown combative and crude. Expressing opinions is a blood sport. We live in a culture of incivility.
Julian of Norwich lived in the 14th century. She is one of Christianity’s revered mystics. In her writings called Revelations she describes moments in which God “gives to her understanding” of his deep and divine mysteries. Many of her revelations are obscure and hard to grasp. One revelation she writes about, is her understanding of courtesy. This revelation is clear. Who would have thought how significant the matter of courtesy was for her and for her spiritual life? In the hardscrabble life of 14th century England, it’s a wonder that anything like courtesy could be so important. Here is the passage roughly paraphrased:
“For our courteous Lord wants that we be close (intimate) with him as our minds and hearts desire. . . For our Lord, himself . . . is very courteous.”
I’ve wondered what she might be getting at. She describes both intimacy and courtesy as divine attributes, saying in effect, this is what God is like.
As a boy, I liked listening to the Sherlock Holmes series on the radio. He called his housekeeper “Mrs. Hudson.” I thought he was being gracious and acting very courteously. I imagined a man of his social status might well have addressed her by her first name. He instead addressed her with the respectful title of ‘Mrs.,’ suggesting that his social status did not entitle him to be dismissive or condescending.
Courtesy and kindness, while important, are more than good manners. They communicate esteem in which we wish to hold others and signal to them our desire to have them be our friends, or at the least, agreeable acquaintances.
I enjoy feeling respected. I like respecting others. This desire finds it expression with the first greetings I make so casually when I meet others. In fact, salutations worldwide vary remarkably in style, but their meaning stays the same. The intent of a greeting has been expressed eloquently by the late Mr. Rogers (of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood fame) who regularly extended courtesy to his viewing audience by his iconic salutation; “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Worldwide we greet one another so differently.
In New Zealand, native people put their foreheads together and look each other in the eye to be neighborly. It reassures the two that they wish no ill and want to be friends.
In Japan, greetings are extended with a formal bow from the waist and with lowered eyes. The deeper the bow the more respect the greeting communicates.
In India, they say “Namaste” and place hands together in a prayerful way. Both Indian and Tai salutations imply that he or she is acknowledging the divine in you. A Christian might think of it as acknowledging that you and I are made in the image of God.
Expect an unusual greeting in Tibet. Should a native stick out his tongue at me, not to worry; he’s only saying hello. While alarming to Westerners, it’s a goodwill gesture. It takes westerners a little getting used to. The greeter wishes to show you he does not have the black tongue of the evil prince who once, in ancient Tibetan lore, brought suffering and evil upon everyone. It’s a Tibetan’s way of reassuring you that he’s okay and you’re okay.
How different we are and how easily we can misunderstand each other. On one side of the world we’d say this salutation was another Bronx cheer–– on the other side, we’d say it was courtesy.
Jews say “Shalom,” meaning peace be with you, as Muslims greet others with “As-Salaam-Alaikum” extending a similar sentiment. The more libidinal French and Spanish characteristically launch social relationships with a kiss on the cheek. For them there’s no question that it’s okay to kiss when meeting for the first time and I suspect this extends as well to kissing on the first date.
All this to say there is a primal desire in you and me for a “courteous” relationship with others where we can enjoy, however briefly, a measure of closeness and intimacy. In these days, the hunger for this is growing – I believe it is being felt as a kind of longing, a craving for something to sate a pervasive sense of loneliness, an unsated appetite deep within us for feeling we’re cared for.
The need for courteous and close relationships is not just a social nicety. Here in the States the need has reached epidemic proportions and even aroused the concerns of the medical community.
According to AARP, about one-third of U.S. adults age 45 and older report feeling lonely.
We are a lonely people, disconnected and yearn for belonging.
I’ve noticed that asking strangers for directions is peculiarly satisfying. By reaching for help I bring out the natural inclination in others to assist. I believe people genuinely want to help. I understand this inclination as one variation of courtesy, which I’d also call kindness. We enjoy knowing we can be of help to others and when the situations present themselves, that is, when it’s clear that we can actually make a difference, we welcome the opportunity.
It’s common today to see bumper stickers that exhort us to “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.” These statements bring out the best in us. They remind us to be more courteous.
Another encouraging development is emerging in our time of incivility.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a recent film exploring the legacy of Fred Rogers and his radically kind ideas. Rogers stood firm in his belief about the importance of protecting childhood and the power of kindness. This film goes “into the heart of a creative genius who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination.” Its rave reviews suggest its statement is capturing the hearts of Americans.
It’s a sad commentary on how we live when kindness has become a radical idea. A little courtesy not only goes a long way; Julian of Norwich says it’s next to godliness.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.