“Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”
These words, written in the 18th century by poet Mary Wortley Montagu, provide a valuable reminder as we move forward in 2017.
We have become more polarized, politically, socially, geographically and economically. We have become less understanding and less tolerant of different points of view and the people who hold them.
New communication technologies have allowed us to surround ourselves with those who reinforce our beliefs and lash out anonymously at those who disagree. Civility seems to have faded from modern society, an archaic relic of a bygone era. But given all we face together, it is more necessary.
As the calendar turns to February, we would do well to remember two of our country’s most influential figures, both with birthdays we celebrate this month: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Washington wrote the book on civility—literally. Actually, it was a list created by 16th century Jesuit priests that Washington copied for a penmanship exercise as a schoolboy. The list stuck with Washington. He lived by the 110 maxims published in the book George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.
The first rule—“Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present”—if followed faithfully, would go a long way toward improving the discourse in our country.
Following the last rule—“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience”—would help us do the right thing more often.
In between, there is wisdom about keeping promises, not believing rumors without facts, not bragging about yourself and not taking pleasure in the misery of others.
Lincoln, an accomplished lawyer, presided over our country’s most fractured period. On the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln continued reaching for common ground saying, “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passions may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Near the war’s end, at his second inauguration after four years of bloody carnage, Lincoln pleaded for the nation to heal and restore civility. He told a divided America, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.“