Civility

By Robert M. Hutmacher, o.f.m.

 

- Rise to one's feet as respect for an older person or dignitary. 

- A true gentleman tips his hat to greet a lady, opens doors, and always walks on the outside.

- Break bread or roll into morsels rather than eating the bread whole.

- Conversation is not to talk continually, but to listen and speak in our turn. Do not monopolize conversation or interrupt another speaker to finish his story for him. - As for the gentlemen, they should be seen and not smelled. They should use but very little perfume, as too much of it is in bad taste.

- A lady, when crossing the street, must raise her dress a bit above the ankle while holding the folds of her gown together in her right hand and drawing them toward the right. It was considered vulgar to raise the dress with both hands as it would show too much ankle, but was tolerated for a moment when the mud is very deep.

- A young lady should be expected to shine in the art of conversation, but not too brightly.

- When introduced to a man, a lady should never offer her hand, merely bow politely and say, "I am happy to make your acquaintance."

- While courting, a gentleman caller might bring only certain gifts such as flowers, candy or a book. A woman could not offer a gentleman any present at all until he had extended one to her, and then something artistic, handmade and inexpensive was permissible.

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Ah, Victoria!  She ruled the British Empire from 1837 until her death in 1901.  You just read some of the expected etiquette of the Victorian era and it’s obvious that social behavior was strictly enforced.  Even the color of certain flowers sent to another person held a particular meaning, so it was essential everyone knew those assigned meanings so as to not send the wrong message.

There were guidelines for etiquette in the 20th century. Emily Post (1872-1960) first released Etiquette in Society, Business, Politics and at Home in 1922; it’s now in it’s 18th edition!  The Emily Post Institute web site can guide most all behaviors from weddings to the golf course (like when is a “gimmie” acceptable or how to deal with cheaters.)  The welcome of their web site states clearly: What does etiquette mean to you? To us, it means treating people with consideration, respect, and honesty. It means being aware of how our actions affect those around us. Why? To help us build successful relationships.

Those two sentences of definition and the reason for good etiquette are a solution for much of the anger, pain and alienation experienced in our country these days.  I use public transportation frequently here in Chicago and learn new language on virtually every trip.  The words people use publicly in phone conversations reveal a complete lack of civility and respect for those of us who hear this side of his or her conversation, much less the person on the receiving end.  Why do people think it’s really cool to talk loudly and so negatively?  Why are people so very, very rude and inconsiderate in restaurants?  Is it a power ploy to put down a server in the presence of your friends?  We urbanites protect “our side” of the sidewalk or crossing lanes to the point of brushing others to let them know they’re in our way.  And the things I’ve heard in check out lanes belie a lot of anger.  Perhaps the epitome of rudeness and complete lack of manners is the phenomenon of road rage, too often involving public fighting and even fatal shootings.  Where are we as a people?  The United States is supposedly the most powerful and sophisticated nation on Earth.  Really?  There’s nothing sophisticated about politicians using vile and condemnatory verbiage against opponents.

We’ve created for ourselves a society without civility and it shows in the entertainment world, in some fashion trends, the geopolitical arena and even within our own Catholic Church.  I am not calling for the rigid extremes of Victorian rules of etiquette but just what the Post people state as the reasons for being nice to others: treating people with consideration, respect, and honesty. It means being aware of how our actions affect those around us to help us build successful relationships.  If the 318 million people in our country were to be aware of how our actions truly do affect other people, perhaps we would not bury the young and innocent so frequently.  Perhaps language could again express the innate beauty within every human heart; after all, we ARE images of God.  Kids could play outside without fear and we could go to the grocery store without being assuaged with  brash language at the checkout lane.

The two recent Supreme Court decisions about the Affordable Health Care Act and same sex marriage have given rise to vitriolic language and the revelation of very limited mindsets.  I’m not going to address same sex marriage or national health care per se in this column.  What concerns me, especially within the Catholic Church, are the ugly attitudes and vile language people use about others.  We may not all agree on moral issues but that does not give one a reason to be unkind, rude and distinctly not Christian    

alt In response to the Supreme Court decision about same sex marriage Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta immediately released a statement that clarified what it means for some people of this country in terms of their civil rights, the untouched teachings and theology of our Sacrament of Marriage and a call for behavior among all people.  In part, he wrote:  This judgment, however, does not absolve either those who may approve or disapprove of this decision from the obligations of civility toward one another. Neither is it a license for more venomous language or vile behavior against those whose opinions continue to differ from our own. It is a decision that confers a civil entitlement to some people who could not claim it before. It does not resolve the moral debate that preceded it and will most certainly continue in its wake.  This moral debate must also include the way that we treat one another – especially those with whom we may disagree.

I have a few theories as to why the world we live in has become so very rude and why people feel so constrained or repressed at times.  Here’s one:  in our cries for freedom we have become less free than ever before in the history of the U.S.  You want a gun?  Sure.  You want to carry that gun into a store or even a church?  Sure.  You want to floor your engine when the light turns red?  Go right ahead because it’s your car and this is the Land of the Free.  You really want to express the anger in your heart without limits or care for the people around you?  Home of the Brave.   Yup, in our world we have screamed for and demanded so much freedom that we’ve turned out to NOT be free.  Kids can’t go to a park in our city of Chicago without worrying about being a target.  If someone forgets to signal when changing lanes in front of you, it’s okay to fire a warning shot through his window.  Crude language - everyone uses it, so why not?

I am not unpatriotic and cherish the principles on which the U.S. was founded. I am not using this column to whine or complain.  These are simply some of my own observations about life in our world. Yet authentic freedom does carry responsibility. I lived in Germany in 1967 with a family who endured the Nazi regime; they knew the complete loss of freedom and a total lack of respect for some of God’s people.   I am not inferring that our country is as bad as Hitler’s Germany.  My observations come from the experiences of every day life that do reveal a degeneration of civility and at times, a loss of care for the common good. 

Where are manners in the way we greet one another or acknowledge one another’s basic human dignity?  Medical science can save a six month fetus outside the womb, yet we sweep away unwanted babies as if so much unwanted waste.  Politicians argue endlessly and block progress without any concern that the people who elected them continue to suffer.  Children are spoken to in public as if they’re feral beasts, humiliated because they are simply being children with needs.  Civility?  Manners?  Respect?

alt When I was in college I exhibited some of the behaviors of a quiet rebel, quite typical in the ‘60’s.  That’s a part of my personality as an artist and one who instinctually keeps an open mind.  And here we are, forty years later and I’ve come to this conclusion: to be rebellious now is to act and speak with manners, to NOT insist on doing whatever I feel like, to passionately call others to live responsibly and help people live for the common good of all, not just my own whims and desires. The days of In A Gadda Da Vida brought about some social change and historians can decide what was the best.  The order for today seems (to me) to be ‘please’  and ‘thank you’, patience and tolerance, looking far beyond one’s selfish needs, compassion for the ‘little ones’ and definitely, an understanding that we are all responsible for the welfare of every human being on Planet Earth

One Chicago television station has a Facebook page and nearly everything they post is bad, tragic or, at the least, nonsensical.  I believe the human person is innately good and if we allow that good to come out by being civil to one another, we can transform the social selfishness that rewards wickedness and denigrates true beauty or compassion.  This country is revered and hated throughout the world for who we are.  And why those extremes?  Because we are a people of extremes: we profess freedom yet live in fear. I do believe that’s the exact opposite of what Thomas Jefferson, Adams, Washington and the boys foresaw a couple hundred years ago.

 I’ve experienced hatred and rudeness even here in the entrance of St. Peter’s in the midst of many people right after Mass.  The person who accosted me had just received Communion from me too!  That was a striking, unforgettable moment in my years here.  How low have we sunk, my friends, when even Jesus Christ cannot take root in one’s heart be-cause of hate.  Rather than strike back or hate in return, however, I have vowed since then to be as kind as I can in thought, word and all I do as a man, a friar, an ordained servant.  I don’t hold a grudge against that man because that would be a complete waste of energy.  [Have you ever noticed that it takes much more effort to hate than to love and respect another?]  I prefer to love life and try my best to cheerfully share that zeal with anyone who comes my way.

 altOur Archbishop, Blase Cupich, also issued a beautiful statement after the Supreme Court decisions in July. Though his message refers to the issue of same sex marriage, it’s the attitude that he is trying to inculcate into Catholic hearts that is so rich.  He wrote:  It is important to note that the Catholic Church has an abiding concern for the dignity of gay persons. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (n. 2358). This respect must be real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the Church’s commitment to accompanying all people. For this reason, the Church must extend support to all families, no matter their circumstances, recognizing that we are all relatives, journeying through life under the careful watch of a loving God

And there you have it – we are all God’s children and because of our common origin from the heart of God, each of us on this planet deserves respect, compassion and sensitivity.  And this respect must be real.  A simple thank you can work wonders and a   compassionate ear given to someone in pain brings more comfort than many medicines.  Hearts filled with God’s mercy will bring about peace in our homes, our communities and our world faster than any political policy.

Civility and manners.  May they bring you peace and all that is good.  Thank you for your constant support of our ministry here at St. Peter’s.  We pray for you every day!

Friar Bob Hutmacher, o.f.m.

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