As I ponder the practice of civility, I find that my mind returns again and again to the bodily experience of civility and the ways that our bodies are tied to our expressions of civility or lack thereof.
I first started thinking in a quite primal place, drawing on my love of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; a tool that I found tremendously helpful in focusing and empowering the gifts of an interdisciplinary hospice team often working at all hours of the day and night in non-traditional settings for modern healthcare (the home!) Having a visual tool to focus a team of doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and so on proved to be helpful in calming everyone down in times of crisis and allowing us to discuss what intervention made the most sense at that moment in time. We assessed and created care plans with intentionality in a way that honored the unique perspectives of the professionals around the table AND that also honored the unique expression of existence we met in the patient and his or her loved ones. A reminder that if our basic physical needs of hunger, hygiene, sleep, pain relief, and safety are not met, higher needs such as our relationships, our sense of self, and our sense of the divine and ultimate meaning will suffer.
In terms of civility I started wondering if sometimes our experiences of incivility are not at times tied to the meeting of basic needs. I thought of my young children and of how when incivility arises my first questions are:
Did you get a nap today?
When was the last time you pooped?
When did you last eat?
Is it the middle of the night?
Is there a big storm raging outside?
I share these questions, because I firmly believe that civil behavior or incivility is always a symptom of a greater source issue—be that source a theological belief, a philosophical belief, a pragmatic professionalism, or a matter of character. The “what” of civility is always tied to a “why,” and sometimes basic needs may impede our ability to live well a virtuous “why” that leads to civility.
While thinking about how bodily needs are tied to expressions of civility I delved into the familiar cadences of my favorite author, Paul Auster, who returns to the memoir genre with Winter Journal. Ironically, I tend to be highly critical of the memoir genre because the temptation to bend universally prescriptive based on the individually descriptive appears irresistible. Auster somehow fights that urge, which seems to irk critics, “Why doesn’t the man just say something??” He does though, just not prescriptively so. He traces the trajectory of his family of divorce, the death of his father, the death of his stepfather, the death of his mother, the death of his own first marriage, and the various deaths of his career. He walks us through every home he’s inhabitated and like his novels and other memoirs it is as though we as a reader are intended to merely acknowledge “Yes, you exist.” And then I come to these quotes he recalls:
“Joseph Joubert wrote in 1815: “The end of life is bitter.” Less than a year later he wrote these words: “One must die loveable (if one can.)” You are moved by the sentence, especially by the words in parentheses, which demonstrate a rare sensitivity of spirit, you feel, a hard-won understanding of how difficult it is to be loveable, especially for someone who is old, who is sinking into decrepitude and must be cared for by others. If one can. There is probably no greater achievement than to be loveable at the end, whether that end is bitter or not…” (215)
The word “loveable” resonated with my thoughts on creating a tenor of civility; the ways that civility evolves beyond particular words and phrases and creates a tone that begins to color our individual identity and broader community. People come to expect a certain tone from certain writers that is tied to what has been written or said previously, and the tone grows to be bigger or more nebulous than the words themselves. How does one create a tone of loveability? I hadn’t really thought about being “loveable.” I have thought that my discipline of responding or conversing with what I hope to be civility as loving, but hadn’t framed the practice of civility as an act of being loveable. Granted, the word loveable seems a bit Teddy Ruxpin to me, but when coupled with Joubert’s first thoughts on bitterness, the humanity of being loveable finds a balance. It seems that some levels of incivility may be tied to one’s experiences of bitterness in life. Those words and moments in life that scar, embitter, that we regret. As a practicing Christian, the ancient practice of confession and forgiveness come into play here for me, with the deep acknowledgement that one can only be loveable because one is deeply, unconditionally loved by God. I’m showing my “source” card here which I hope leads to one of many faithful symptoms, such as civility.
And yet, I wonder how the practice of civil discourse finds life in the holy space between bitterness and a desire to be loveable (if one can), a dialectic that swings between the utter hopelessness that can arise from the deep awareness of the opacity of others and the dogged hope that somehow we can understand another and be understood in turn.