Author’s note: This article was first published on July 14, 2010.
Sometimes, when engaging in our favorite pastime of critiquing what’s wrong with our society, our surroundings, our leaders, and our world, we tend to get caught up in the use of rhetoric. We sometimes get lost in the sounds of our own pontificating. If you doubt this, just spend a day listening to the talk shows that often disseminate their unique brands of truth and fiction, sometimes shaping public opinion, occasionally in a stunted and twisted way.
We marvel at those among us who use the most intricate words to define and delineate our dilemmas. This week, we will Consider This… how can two small, well-worn, and commonplace words not only perfectly capture the essence of what is wrong with our Bahamian society today but also suggest what we can do to make it better?
The first word is “civility” which is defined as courteous behavior, politeness, and a courteous act or utterance. Many of us can relate to this word.
This was what we were all urged to be, maybe called by another name, as we were being raised. It encompassed important words like “yes, sir”, “yes, ma’am”, “please”, “thank you” and “excuse me” that were drummed into our heads at home, at school, and at church.
It was the way we were guided to interact with those of our own age and what we were told was sadly missing when some of those interactions ended badly in some form of altercation or another.
In our young adulthood, it was the watchword that made it possible to find and hold that good job, to be attractive to that special someone, and to finally realize the dream of most people: to have a good marriage and become a good parent.
Civility, as we were taught, enables us to realize our goals, transform our fondest wishes into reality, and make those dreams come true.
Imagine for a moment that important interview with a loan officer who can decide whether you can have a mortgage, so you can finally purchase that home.
How do you think that interview would go without civility?
I know we have all wished we could just walk in and say, “I am a good risk; I have a job; I want that house” and walk out with the money. However, whether we want to believe it or not, a good measure of civility goes into any important transaction that can actually decide the outcome, sometimes even turning a “no” situation into a “yes”.
In our daily lives, just notice the civility demonstrated by the more successful people around you.
Now, I am not talking about those whom society would classify as “successful” – that is, rich and affluent with those fancy cars and fancier houses.
I am talking about truly successful people who raise healthy, well-adjusted children despite all the negative influences that swirl around us.
I am talking about people who are successful at their jobs, no matter what their occupations, and who are contented with what they have accomplished in their lives and the lives of their families and friends, all by simply practicing civility with all.
I am talking about our teachers who shaped our lives by practicing civility, our pastors who guide our lives with their civility, and those other role models whose civility has enriched us in one way or another.
Then look around you again at all those moments we live through each day where civility is absent and ask yourself how a moment’s politeness and courtesy could change the course of events in a positive way.
Think about how much those sharp, rude words hurt and how quickly they change what could be a positive outcome into a negative failure.
Think about how far a little civility can go to diffusing a situation, how much value there is in what is called “common courtesy” that is, unfortunately, not all that common in our 21st Century Bahamas.
To see how civility can transform the world, try this for the next week.
Each time someone, be it a stranger, a family member, or a co-worker, demonstrates a lack of civility to you, answer them with courteous behavior and polite words and watch how you can change the mood instantly. Perhaps they won’t show it to you, but demonstrating civility to that person will not only change the moment; it just may show them how much more powerful civility is when compared to rudeness.
The other word I would like us to consider is “compassion” which means “deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it”.
Many of us have childhood memories of adults within the community who assisted others, whether it was by feeding those who were hungry or mentoring children who needed care, or simply being there for those who needed an encouraging word.
“Back in the day”, Bahamians prided themselves on taking care of one another and being their brother’s keeper.
In a small community, this was the way we remained strong as a people by being concerned about the well being of all.
Many neighbors, having been through the same events and challenges, knew the pain firsthand and were quick to alleviate others.
Instead of simply paying lip service to the suffering of others, they took action to relieve it. And it was often in small ways, a kind word here, a meal there, a piece of advice there, but it was always helpful and more often than we will probably ever know, a person’s life was changed by that compassion.
Today, with our doors closed, we fail to hear the cries for help that reverberate through our nation. Many of us have closed our hearts to the feeling of compassion because to feel it makes demands of our better nature, demands we have become reluctant to fulfill.
But compassion has some surprising results. The Dalai Lama maintains that, “The rewards of practicing compassion go first to the practitioner. I believe it is very important to understand this; otherwise, we will believe that compassion benefits the other and has nothing for us.
“If one always thinks of oneself, one’s thinking becomes very narrow; even a small problem appears very significant and unbearable. When we think of others, our minds widen, and within that large space, even big personal problems may appear insignificant.”
So, besides being good for others and for our society, compassion is personally beneficial for each of us.
For the next week, try this exercise in compassion. When you meet someone on the street, whether or not you know that person, offer a friendly smile. Sometimes there will be no response; sometimes there will be suspicion. But you will receive the benefit of smiling.
We used to do this. Smiling and “hailing” is as Bahamian as it gets.
But, for some reason, we have strayed away from it in recent years, especially here in the big city.
For the next few days, give yourself the benefit of smiling and, who knows, that small gesture might make a difference for someone who is having a bad day or who is feeling the pressure of our very troublesome economy.
It might not change the world, but showing momentary compassion for another soul could just change that life for an instant – and all change begins somewhere.
Civility and compassion are two small words that are too often absent not only from our vocabulary but from our daily lives.
Their absence has a profound impact on what is happening to us as a people and as a society.
By making a conscious effort to practice these two concepts, we can change not only our own lives for the better, but the lives of those around us, and then, like a ripple in a lake, the effects of civility and compassion can course throughout our nation and transform it forever.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Bahamas, Advisors and Chartered Accountants. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.