Courtesy Keeps The Spirit Of Christmas Alive

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Christmas afternoon finds me reading “Courtesy.” It’s an essay by Ian MacLaren (pen name for Scottish author and theologian John Watson) that offers a recipe for keeping the spirit of Christmas alive in daily life. Here are some excerpts I found useful, the last finds me still clearly in the “before picture.”

Courtesy Keeps The Spirit Of Christmas Alive

“A vast distinction must be drawn between manners, which have to do with form, and that which lies behind manners and is infinitely more serious–courtesy. It is by the soul and not by any trick of speech that we ought to estimate our fellow man, and he who fears God and loves his brother demands honor at our hands.”
Ian MacLaren in “Courtesy”

MacLaren clearly distinguishes between surface and substance and encourages mindfulness and attention to others’ state of mind and emotions as much as mannerisms.

“Courtesy is really doing unto others as you be done unto, and the heart of it lies in a careful consideration for the feelings of other people. It comes from putting one’s self in his neighbor’s place, and trying to enter his mind, and it demands a certain suppression of one’s self, and a certain delicate sympathy neighbor.”
Ian MacLaren in “Courtesy”

You would expect a Presbyterian minister to weave scripture into an essay, here his “doing unto others” echoes Luke 6:31 “Do to others as you would have them do to you” and Matthew 7:12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” The more interesting phrase is “it demands a certain suppression of one’s self” which encourages you to take a wider or systems view of any situation. It’s easy to be clear on our own needs, it’s harder to make the small or medium sacrifices that leave others better off, much less the larger sacrifices that, while they are required less often, can have a huge impact on someone’s life.

“This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavoring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self. We must feel as a brother toward the man beside us, and say to him the things that we should like to have said to us, and treat him as we should desire to be treated when are hands are hanging down and our hearts are heavy. And this is the very essence of courtesy.”
John Watson in “Courtesy” from “The Homely Virtues” (1903) [Google Books]

Garson O’Toole,  the Quote Investigator,  credits this passage an earlier and more elaborate version of  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It was this passage that led me to find the essay. This phrase in particular “wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched” struck me as a clear expression of what a thoughtless remark does: it presses on a scabbed wound or bruise that still hurts when touched.

I’ve often made a remark that has triggered a reaction out of proportion–in my mind–and either thought the other person was a jackass or “touchy.” It couldn’t have been my mistake, but just to be safe my first reaction was often to retreat into a colder politeness. Lately I have tried to apologize with warmth and humor–I don’t always succeed in this–and try a different tack. This paragraph nicely summarizes what courtesy requires.

“Just because the machinery of life is so apt to be heated, one keenly appreciates those who are ever deftly pouring in the cooling oil, by their patience and their tact, their sweetness and their sympathy.”
Ian MacLaren in “Courtesy”

I am able to pour this cooling oil proactively in situations where I can anticipate the need–hospital visits, funerals, hosting a Bootstrapper Breakfast–but not am always good at the day to day need for mindfulness and kindness. I can wear courtesy like dress clothes but need to incorporate it into my day to day outfits.

“And one resents keenly that class of people who are honest and well-meaning, but are persistently discourteous. No man has a right to lecture his neighbor, or to intrude upon his neighbor’s privacy, or to wound his neighbor’s feelings, and when he does so in his role of the plain-spoken man, then he ought to be made to understand the difference between reality and rudeness.”
Ian MacLaren in “Courtesy”

This is often me, blunt and direct to the point where “that will leave a mark.” And when it presses on the wrong place it can open an old wound.  So getting a jump on my New Year’s resolutions I plan to work on this in 2016 (and likely years beyond that).

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