This April 2020, when most of us are confined to our homes surrounded only by family members, is a particularly good time to celebrate the old- fashioned excellences of graciousness and courtesy. There is so much in our lives at this time that we cannot control: we cannot go to a restaurant, go to the movies, send the kids to school, visit a friend, go to church, go to the office, go to a library, hold a family reunion, see the grandchildren, or throw a party. Our lives are full of restrictions. A million things we cannot do.
Here’s what we can do: enhance the quality of life in our homes with courtesy and graciousness. Ensure that our interpersonal relationships flourish. Are we treating each other (spouses, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, parents) with kindness and respect? Do I make those I live with feel special? Do I treat those I’m closest to with politeness? Have I put consideration for their needs upper most on my list?
If you answered "yes" to those questions, you’re probably doing very well enduring the shut-down. Yet when we are all cooped up – even with (especially with?) family members, it’s easy to snap, isn’t it? “Lizzy, you’ve had that marker for half an hour! Give it to me!” (Followed by lunge for marker.) “You kids are driving me crazy! Stop behaving like brats or you’ll all go to your rooms!” (Followed by door slamming.) Our house isn’t that bad, you say to yourself. If so, congratulations!
Graciousness and courtesy are not cardinal virtues. Some writers have gone so far as to downgrade them to “secondary virtues,” implying they are nice-to-have-add-ons, while one works for some larger, more important ideal (justice or world peace, let’s say). Maybe you can even dispense with them if you’re working for that higher ideal, some might argue. (“I yelled at my sister because she was making it hard for me to finish writing this poem for my mother!”) But gentle manner and good manners are essential ways of showing respect, making them important attributes in service of justice and love.
The child who learns to say please, thank you, does not interrupt, resists name-calling, asks how he/she can help, and forebears the temptation to hit a sibling is truly working for world peace. The parent who does not routinely snap at his/her demanding kiddos, who also resists name-calling (you brats!), who is patient with the less-than-perfect efforts of their children, and who strives to create an environment of respect and good cheer in the home is doing their part for social justice.
Finally, cultivating the habits of courtesy and the attitude of graciousness involves a great deal of self-discipline and self-control. It’s not about remembering to execute on the “niceties.” It’s about visibly and vocally attending to the needs and feelings of others, when we’d rather blow them off, when we are feeling low and put-upon. Graciousness and courtesy force us to combat the great downward-sucking spiral of self-absorption. These are things we can control. If each home works on those twin goals this month, then in May, we’ll be lots closer to justice and world peace.