Crossing the Bridge to Civility

“We’re all just walking each other home.” (Ram Dass)

Nearly three years ago, still reeling with disbelief and grief from the election that had called into question everything I believed about my country and my fellow Americans, a friend and I attended a lecture on “Civil Discourse.” The speaker was a University of Washington philosophy and religious studies professor, David Smith. I found Dr. Smith’s words both enlightening and comforting and wrote about them in-depth here.

In recent weeks, I find myself going back to the notes I took that day and thinking more deeply about what he said. It speaks to me not just of the looming election, but also these last many months of racial and social unrest, lived amidst a global pandemic … and, ultimately, our responsibility to care for one another, no matter who, no matter what.

Dr. Smith cited several reasons why we treat one another with incivility and disrespect, noting that we’re often not even aware of what drives our behavior. This, he said, is because most people don’t consciously choose their beliefs. “Everything we believe is the result of our life story.” Our beliefs rise within us as we live our lives. They come from how we were raised, our observations and emotions—which are often driven by fear.

Perhaps this knowledge gives us some insight into the people who do and say things that bewilder us. Perhaps it also gives us some insight into ourselves….

Causes of Incivility

  • Failure to recognize our own limitations – These may include intelligence, knowledge, and experience. We’re all wrong about something, but we don’t always recognize that. A most obvious example of this is the current president, who is unable to acknowledge mistakes or even admit that he doesn’t know something—a dangerous failing for someone whose decisions impact lives and economies. At a personal level, don’t we all occasionally find it hard to admit our shortcomings and our errors? The remarkable thing is that when we finally do, people respect us for it and we feel freer to be ourselves. This is one of life’s great lessons.
  • Bias – We want certain things to be true. And we cling to our beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. As Dr. Smith noted, “We don’t always want the truth, especially if it means we need to make a change.” This brings anti-maskers to mind. For whatever reasons, they are determined to believe that masks aren’t a deterrent to the COVID-19 virus. Overwhelming evidence cannot budge them. We see it, too, when people cry “fake news” whenever they hear something that does not support their world view. Before we condemn them for their unthinking rigidity, perhaps we should examine some of our own biases.
  • I am X. I don’t just believe X, I am X – Some people over-identify with a label rather than take the time to discern whether they agree with everything that label represents. Example: “I am a Liberal. I don’t merely believe in liberal values, I am a Liberal.” Replace liberal with conservative, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, etc. As a result, when someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack, rather than a simple questioning of a particular belief or conviction. On the other side of this coin, there are people claim to hate X [conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Republicans…] and thus they will hate everything about that person, refusing to interact civilly or to see anything but the demon label they have affixed to them.
  • The incivility of the other person – Their bad behavior triggers our own bad behavior. I’ve written about this so many times. If we can only learn to pause and remember that because someone else is behaving like a jerk doesn’t mean we must, too. Breaking that cycle of incivility changes everything. It confounds the person who’s misbehaving and takes the wind from their sails. It deflates their power and awards the win to you (and civility).
  • Emotion – We’re triggered by fears of what the world would be like if the other person’s view dominated. We see this in so many political ads, which not only play on existing fears, but seek to incite new ones and demonize whole groups of people. We see it in the movement for racial justice, too, where some people fear losing their privilege or entitlement if others achieve equity.
  • Uncertainty – Could I really be wrong about some of this? Related to the earlier bullet about admitting our errors, letting go of long-held beliefs is hard. It threatens our selfhood. We’ve seen examples of people leaving the white supremacy movement or other cults and realizing how controlled they had been by the powers of hate and fear. We see it in the people who are unable to admit they may have erred in voting for a corrupt and incompetent man four years ago. Perhaps we all carry some long-held beliefs that might need examining.
  • Closed-mindedness – Are we unwilling to consider alternative information or beliefs that might be inconvenient or uncomfortable? Can we hold our convictions and still be open-minded? This goes beyond mere bias to the unwillingness to even consider that there may be alternate points of view. We can see this in religious zealotry, political jingoism, and xenophobia. It has always seemed to me that anyone so unwilling to examine their beliefs is probably not all that secure in them.

Dr. Smith defined civility quite simply as “treating others with appropriate courtesy and respect.” He reminded us that to be full participants in a civil society, we need to expand beyond a circle of people who confirm our own opinions and biases, and interact with people who don’t share our views. We need to be open to the possibility that the other side of anything might contain some truth, something we can learn from.

At this critical juncture, as we seek to change the direction of our discourse, my hope is that each of us will see that we have a role in making that happen. In the words of the late Congressman John Lewis:

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Press Pause

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” (Rollo May)

Attribution: By zenera (http://www.flickr.com/photos/zenera/37026266/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons[As we approach the most important election America has ever faced, amidst a global pandemic and critical cultural tipping points, I am revisiting and reexamining some of what I consider the most important elements of kindness, as well as exploring them in context of where we are today.]


I first wrote about the power of the pause in the earliest days of this blog. I marveled at how something so simple could have so much influence on our attitudes and our interactions, and so much power to change us and our world. Instead of responding instantly with knee-jerk reactions to presumed slights or insults—which generally escalates a situation—if we can cultivate the habit of pausing, we can produce the outcome we seek, and not perpetuate bad behavior or exacerbate an adverse encounter.

The pause offers us the gift of grace.

Rather than being an empty space, it is an expectant moment, filled with promise and possibility. It’s up to us, in that fleeting gap, to decide what comes next.

In that brief pause we can ask ourselves: Continue reading

Fear and Trembling In 2020

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.” (Gandhi)

There are three dimensions of fear, as it relates to kindness.

Extending Kindness

First, fear inhibits us from extending kindness. We fear rejection, we fear being misunderstood, or appearing clumsy, embarrassing or calling attention to ourselves. Simply put, we fear the vulnerability of not knowing how our kindness will play out. It feels safer to do nothing.

A good question to ask if we’re hesitating to extend a kindness is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?” Then focus your attention on doing good.

Receiving Kindness

Sometimes, fear gets in the way of our receiving kindness. We may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver and fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And it should be a pretty easy one. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, receive it graciously—and gratefully—and savor the kindness.

Perhaps the question to ask is, “What’s the most gracious response here?” We’re never wrong if we offer the best of who we are.

Behaving Unkindly

Fear is at the heart of so many unkind actions. When we feel stupid or inept, or threatened by a new and intimidating experience, we often lash out. When our security or beliefs are tested, or when circumstances challenge us to change our way of thinking, we go on the offensive. We say something rude, we belittle, we behave inconsiderately. Continue reading

Don’t Settle for Nice

“Mean is easy. Mean is lazy. Mean is self-satisfied and slothful. You know what takes effort? Being kind. Being patient. Being respectful.” (Jake Tapper)

[In the six years I’ve been blogging about kindness I’ve sometimes strayed to other topics, but kindness remains my North Star. Usually, I feel confident that kindness will surmount the evil, greed, intolerance, and disregard that threatens the world, but sometimes I am stunned and baffled by the meanness of many of my fellow humans. As we approach the most important election America has ever faced, amidst a global pandemic, I am periodically going to revisit and reexamine some of my earliest thoughts about kindness and explore them in context of today’s circumstances.]

Since the publication of A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, I’ve been blessed to have many opportunities to talk about kindness—at bookstores, libraries, service organizations, conferences, radio shows, and podcasts. The question I am asked most often is, “What’s the difference between kind and nice? Aren’t they the same thing?”

To some, the difference may be wholly semantic, but I believe there is a vast difference, and the times we are currently living in require that we choose kindness.

It’s fairly easy to be nice. Nice is polite. It’s doing what is expected: smiling at the cashier, holding a door, speaking courteously, not offending. Nice is safe. It doesn’t ask me to take any risk or to make a connection. I can be nice and still make judgments about people. I can be nice and still merely tolerate others, with an insincere smile on my face. I can be nice and remain indifferent, not caring if the person I’m interacting with is getting what they need.

But kind asks more of me. Continue reading

Hindsight 2020: How Will Our Children Remember COVID-19?

“If you can control your behavior when everything around you is out of control, you can model for your children a valuable lesson in patience and understanding…and snatch an opportunity to shape character.” (Jane Clayson Johnson)

When you were a child or adolescent, were there momentous historical events that altered your life and shaped who you ultimately became?

For me, it was the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and also the war in Vietnam. For my parents, it was the Great Depression and World War II. For other generations, the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina may have etched permanent impressions.

The noteworthy historical event for today’s children or grandchildren could well be the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll remember it not just as that year schools closed and we stayed home a lot, but also for the way we as individuals and as a nation responded to adversity.

Will they tell their own children and grandchildren stories of scuffles over toilet paper, of hoarding and profiteering, of finger-pointing at people of different nationalities? Will they recount the politicization of life-saving, common-sense measures? Or will they describe how, even in isolation, people found ways to connect with and support one another? How neighbor checked on neighbor, shared provisions, and made sure that those who were most vulnerable were not overlooked. Continue reading