Ci-vil-i-ty: civilized conduct, especially courtesy; politeness; a polite act or expression; a code of conduct.
This is how the dictionary defines civility, but how often do we see it?
On a street corner in Detroit, an elderly woman dropped her cane, teetered against a parking meter for support, and asked a group of young passersby for help in picking it up. They refused, even mocking her for her inability to stand completely upright as they continued on their way.
At first period in a Cleveland middle school classroom, a student let the door slam on a not-so-popular classmate carrying a heavy load of books, resulting in a concussion. He was applauded for his actions by his fellow students. And in the lobby of a busy New York high rise, people were in such a hurry to get to work and “not get involved,” they continued to step around the diabetic man who’d collapsed near the elevators without offering assistance. Though he was dressed in a business suit and carried a briefcase, one person interviewed afterwards said she’d assumed he was drunk, which was enough for her to keep going. Others said they hadn’t given it a second thought.
In a world governed by reality television where verbal and physical attacks ratchet up ratings, and apathy, modern-day survival of the fittest, and even outright cruelty toward others are systematically encouraged and rewarded, kindness and respect may just be a lost art. And what about the concept of acquiring “friends”? Seems it’s become a Facebook competition rather than building solid relationships based on caring and support. In fact one noted sociologist has quipped that the only difference between the behavior of contemporary society and that of prehistoric man is the number of syllables used to express things.
Back in the early 18th Century, a teenaged George Washington transcribed and presented the “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” With 110 tenets in all, and while some today may appear antiquated having little to do with 21st Century life, many are startlingly relevant– for example number 1: Every Action done in Company, ought to be with some sign of Respect, to those that are Present, or number 65: Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest….” Imagine a world where people went out of their way to respect, support, and uplift others, rather than tearing them down? Small efforts toward compassion and common courtesy at work, in school, and with our families at home can inspire and transform others–even ourselves–into better human beings. So what can you do to change things?
On the first day of school in Mrs. Logan’s Manchester, New Hampshire 6th grade class, students were asked to write personal essays on ways to be polite, helpful, and considerate of others, their essays shared with classmates later on. Throughout the year each student consciously practiced what he or she wrote, and what others wrote, in the classroom, the cafeteria, at school activities and other events with friends, and at home with parents, siblings, and grandparents. The results, though not always measured in giant steps, nevertheless quietly transformed the community and even extended beyond its borders to out of town school sporting events, school concerts, and more.
“When you demonstrate compassion and do things in the spirit of cooperation, consideration, and friendship–I mean when you really extend yourself, people take notice,” said Mrs. Logan. “And hopefully it rubs off on them as well.”
In a troubled section of Houston, discouraged by their deteriorating environment, frustrated by the lack of funds to change things on a grand scale though compelled to take a bold step, a group of citizens got together and designated an aptly named “Help Week.” In this period of time, each participant would dedicate themselves to everything from opening doors for coworkers and strangers, thanking the harried checker in a busy supermarket line, offering assistance to their neighbors, complimenting the bus driver or restaurant server, or simply smiling at people who appeared stressed on the street.
“I think maybe the world changed for a few others on the receiving end and it sure changed for me,” said one participant who vowed to continue his actions on a daily basis. “When you show people that you’re interested, everybody wins.”
Perhaps George Washington’s last rule of civility serves us all and says it best–number 110: Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.
Maybe he was on to something. What about you?