Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” the poet John Keats called this time of the year in his ode “To Autumn.” The words evoke a peaceful scene, a season suited to reflection and grateful enjoyment of temperate weather and the yield of the harvest.
If only it were so. This year’s autumn looks very different from Keats’ poetic vision, and peace is hard to come by. It has been six months since the coronavirus pandemic hit us broadside and turned our lives upside down. Masks, sanitizers, social distancing are part of our daily routine, and the familiar rhythms of work, school, recreation and simply getting together with others are all disrupted. Our churches, closed for months as a necessary protective measure, are open again, and that is a mercy, but occupancy restrictions and ubiquitous hand sanitizer—good thing it’s there—remind us that things are far from back to normal, if indeed they ever will be. And there is no end in sight.
Our society at large is no better off. Rioting continues with its consequent damage and destruction, epithets are hurled, hostility grows. The presidential campaigns are bitter, and no doubt the worst is yet to come. There are, of course, serious issues at stake, and some issues do not admit of compromise. There will be dissension.
How do we navigate this? How do we get through it without losing our own peace of mind? After all, our serenity is already compromised by everything else we’re going through.
I’ve been trying to come up with an answer, and what I find myself thinking about, first of all, is courtesy. It seems to be in short supply in some places, notably in the media and public life, and sometimes on a local level. Courtesy might be a strange quality to ask for in times as contentious as ours, yet we have never needed it more.
But what is courtesy? I figured I’d be able to rattle out a definition, but when I tried to, it did not come easily. Is it being kind to other people? Well, that’s a start. Given my own proclivity for losing my patience, I would add, “being kind to other people whether I feel like it or not.” I decided to check a few sources for some help, both in books and online. Turns out that in the Middle Ages, courtesy was the code of behavior expected of those at court—in other words, the nobility. A certain deference and gentility was expected of those closest to the king. I suppose that some of them adopted courtly manners less because they wanted to treat other people well than because they wanted to stay close to the king. Even now, mixed motivation is not a reason to abandon a course of action. Better to do the right thing for one’s own gain, in part, than not to do the right thing at all.
But the idea of courtesy goes back a lot farther than the medieval era. The Bible offers this wisdom: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus on how to treat others: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
I am thinking about how to apply this in my own life. As I mentioned, I find it difficult to remain patient when my views are attacked. I am inclined to forgo the “soft answer” in favor of the smart-aleck reply or the tit-for-tat zinger. And there are, of course, the principles that are unchangeable and therefore beyond argument—the sacredness of all human life, for example, and the equal dignity and value of all people regardless of race or national origin.
Maybe those issues point the way to the solution. If we respect all others and remember that they, like us, deserve the respect and courtesy due to everyone, we might find it easier to remain calm when conversation turns controversial.
I hope our public officials do likewise.