Good Will Toward Men
A Word on Civility
From Uncommon Decency by Richard J. Mouw
I believe being civil is a way of becoming more like what God intends us to be. Though he would not have put it in those terms, the ancient philosopher Aristotle would have agreed. He was firmly convinced that civility is necessary for people to realize their human potential. Along those lines, he insisted that we human beings are essentially “political animals.” “Political” comes from the Greek word polis, which pertains to the city—like the Latin civitas, the root for our word “civil.” Aristotle was convinced that we cannot become truly human until we can capably function as citizens of the city.
To be good citizens, we must learn to move beyond relationships that are based exclusively on familiarity and intimacy. We must learn how to behave among strangers, to treat people with courtesy not because we know them, but simply because we see them as human beings like ourselves. When we learn the skills of citizenship, Aristotle taught, we have begun to flourish in our humanness.
As a person who has written and spoken a lot about civility, I regularly face situations in which I know I have to put up or shut up on the subject. Two closely related encounters stand out for the lessons I learned.
The first happened when I drove into a mini-mall one day to pick up some groceries. It was a crowded parking lot, and when I spotted an open space I pulled right into it. Then I heard some angry horn-blowing from a car facing from the opposite direction. The driver had obviously been waiting for the spot, and I had simply pulled in without noticing. She kept at the honking for several seconds, then gave me the middle finger and searched for another spot.
I decided to go looking for her. When I walked up, she was just getting out of her car.
“I’m very sorry,” I said, “That was very thoughtless of me. I should have been paying closer attention to other drivers.”
She sobbed. “If you knew the kind of day I have had… But… Oh, never mind!” And she walked away. After many steps she turned around. There were tears in her eyes. “Thank you,” she said softly, and then she walked away.
The second encounter occurred a few weeks later when, returning a rental car, I got into an argument with the attendant. He wanted to charge me an extra hour, and I was convinced he was misreading the contract. Our heated exchange was interrupted by a supervisor, a middle-aged African American woman. She asked what was wrong, and I explained the situation to her in irritated tones. She looked at the contract, and said to her associate, “He’s right.”
Then she turned to me, and said, “Honey, you need a hug!”
After a brief embrace, I said, “Thank you,” in the soft tone that I remembered from the woman in the mini-mall lot. Then I quietly apologized to the attendant for the tone I had used with him.
That little encounter reminded me that civility takes work. It takes spiritual work. Sometimes the Lord makes that point for us by sending someone to give us a hug!
Copyright © 2010 by Richard J. Mouw. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. Richard Mouw’s newly revised and expanded book Uncommon Decency is available now.