Growing up I heard my parents talk often about certain actions being “common courtesy.” Things like acknowledging others as you pass them on the sidewalk, allowing ladies to go first, opening doors for the elderly, stopping to help those in need, and especially sending a nice “Thank You” note to acknowledge another’s generosity became “musts” in our family. These courtesies were “common” because they were assumed to be the obligation of those living in civilized, mutually dependent society. To help someone else was to strengthen the whole community.
I’ve noticed this value of “courtesy” is actually becoming more and more uncommon, and I don’t like it. I don’t like offering a greeting to those I pass on the street when their response is the silence of intentionally ignoring my presence. I don’t like it when I pull into a parking stall at the market only to see a shopping cart carelessly left in the middle. I don’t like it when the driver ahead of me throws the last dregs of his coffee out the window and onto my windshield, and I certainly don’t appreciate when a cigarette butt comes next. I don’t like it when situations that have always included “please” and “thank you” become conspicuous by their absence. I don’t like it when the barista at the coffee shop, the checker at the market, and the person selling me my movie ticket carry out the entire transaction without making eye contact or even acknowledging my part in making their employment possible.
I don’t like these and myriad other situations where courtesy has apparently taken the last stage out of town. And here’s why: Courtesy helps put the shine on society. It reminds us not everyone is self-absorbed; not everyone is mad; not everyone is up to no good, or in league with those whose goal is to tear down our society and uproot our lives. With the headlines screaming violence and hatred and confusion and danger, it helps to know there are still regular, common people who care about one another enough to make courtesy a regular, common part of their lives.
Here’s the deal. From ancient times “wisdom” was considered the skill of righteous living. It was the result of taking knowledge, putting shoe leather on it, and making it walk the paths of everyday life. The wise were those who did what was right in the eyes of God, and also best for the community. What pleased God and benefited neighbor was labeled noble and good, and as well, was to be the “common” practice for all.
Today we are seeing the reverse. Too often our personal desires become the standard everyone else is expected to tolerate. If I don’t want to put my grocery cart away, too bad for you. If I don’t want to acknowledge your greeting, big deal. If I don’t want to open doors, pick up my trash, or turn down the music of my outdoor party after 11 p.m., then I’m not going to, and you can just learn to put up with it. What we’re seeing is the rise of “common discourtesy.”
So, here are two suggestions: If you have kids, don’t let them grow up to be self-centered, obnoxious jerks intent on living in a way that ticks off everyone around them. Give them some good values, complete with appropriate discipline, and worry more about developing character than inflating their self-esteem. Second, model courtesy and generosity and compassion and selflessness yourself. Show your kids how to live beyond themselves, and in the process, become a purveyor of common courtesy. Who knows, it just might start a trend.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.