The Art of Civility

Painting a Beautiful Picture for our World

A beautiful painting arrests our attention, draws us in, causes us to stop and consider it. Beautiful art of any kind engages, challenges, and moves us. In the same way, the sight of courteous people living together in civil community is a beautiful thing to look upon, and inspires a second look.

My closest, most genuine, and dearest example of this comes from my own home.

Jim, my husband of 45 years, is a gentle man with a large and beautiful heart. I sometimes wonder if people who don’t know him could believe he is real! How can I explain my Jim? From our young, married days (we wedded during our college years), Jim has been the kind of man who opens the car door for me and walks around to open it again, offering a hand out once we arrive. He unlocks the front door, opens it, and stands back so I may enter first. He still pushes the dining chair in for me at dinner, even when it is just we two. He exhibits the same gentility to others, but I am the beneficiary and focus of his constant, beautiful care.

Jim will never sit in any waiting situation if others are present. In a bus, or waiting to be seated at a restaurant, he will stand, no matter how long.  He would never, never sit if others might possibly need a seat. He just quietly stands, making the seat available, leaving it open for another.  He would never consider it his seat, but theirs.  He is a true gentleman.

Every week Jim was gone during the war (Vietnam), I would receive a bunch of roses from a local florist; he had made arrangements for this lavish gift (on his meager salary) before he left. His great gift to me, to our children and grandchildren, and to those who know him well, is this beautiful, selfless gentility. His kind, courteous demeanor is a wordless work of art, walking poetry. Never loud or boisterous, and not meant to be noticed or even appreciated, it stands quietly, radiating beauty, exuding a most winsome fragrance.

Our word Courtesy comes from the Latin word for court, or courtly. Here we have the concept of treating each other like kings and queens. A person who is treated with Courtesy experiences both deference and grace. I understand the concept very well, for I have decades of experience on the receiving end of it. And I can report for certain its transformative power. In my early teen years I began to stutter, and experienced the pain of this well into college—until I met and married this wonderful man, who truly treated me like a queen. Gradually the stammer lessened and then disappeared altogether. The knowledge that one is valued, prized even, is transformative.

Courtesy and Civility are always looking outward; they are Others-Focused. In fact, the word civility comes from the Latin word civitas, which means city – individuals, living, working, and moving in proximity.  Civility is all about Community, whether the community is a family, a twosome, a team, or a town. Civility knows that others are important, takes them into account and gives them value.  It is not self-seeking and exclusive, but has a humble understanding that individuals need each other and must work together.  Civility is inclusive and neighborly; in fact, ‘neighborliness’ is a good synonym for ‘civility’. 

Community-minded people are neighborly – seeking the welfare of the civitas they find themselves in: on the freeway, in the office, at the checkout counter, on the sports field, around the dinner table. The one who lives out civility is always seeking out ways to serve his fellows, and is glad to lead them to the choice places. Counter-cultural, to be sure.

There is much talk of ‘community’ today, but little understanding of its meaning.  If you are like me, you have many examples of incivility and discourtesy at the tip of your tongue; we see it at every turn.  We are surrounded and inundated by the Push & Shove, Me-First way of doing and being in this, our time.  We do not need to elevate and stare at these, groaning at the dearth of civility and lack of courtesy in our community.  What we need are beautiful examples – living pictures of another way of behaving when we are together.   We needMary Alice & Jim more Jims, who will gladly stand and offer their seat, who value others and show it, who have a heart of compassion… which is Civility.

A beautiful work of art will not arrest everyone’s attention, but it might attract the interest of some. At the very least, the process of creating that artwork will feed and fulfill our own souls.

Yours for a return to grace, civility, beauty, gentility, and excellence,

Mary Alice