Monday, March 15, 2010

Impolite Apes and the Civility Card

I remember a long time ago watching a television show about civility and society. It focused on how people interact with one another in person, on the roads, pretty much anywhere we’re thrown together. My memory of this story is sketchy, but what struck me was how the show documented our mounting impatience with each other, with long lines, with traffic, even with patience itself.  

For instance, I was driving in Ohio last week and stopped several yards from a stoplight to allow a driver to merge. It was instinctive and it’s something I often see in Portland. But within seconds I heard a tell-tale honk from somewhere and noticed the guy behind me inching his white Toyota Corrola within inches of my bumper. From his angry reaction to my small gesture of civility, you’d have thought I’d parked my car in the middle of a bustling intersection and played Chinese Fire Drill.  

While I’m sure civility is still very much alive, sometimes it’s hard to see, especially when it involves those we know best. This week, I found myself in a miscommunication with someone I know very well, and what began as a minor misunderstanding between family members quickly morphed into an epic skirmish. Civility was nowhere to be found. Both of us swore the other was wrong, and who knows? But I think how you treat each other during these uncivil moments is often more important than who’s right.  

Just when I’d nearly thrown up my hands and declared the world a barbarous jungle populated with impolite apes, my faith in civility was restored. On a plane ride back to Portland, I found myself knitting across the aisle from a woman who was doing the same. As our fingers were occupied with yarn and needles, we struck up a pleasant conversation about all kinds of things, including the latest exercise craze: pole dancing. It’s something this mother of three does when she can. She said if Martha Stewart does it must be okay. Later, as we were disembarking from the plane, she presented me with a little knitted coaster as a gift. In the middle of our crazy urban jungle gym, a complete stranger had crafted a gift for someone she’d most likely never see again. This small, lovely gesture filled me with hope that civility and kindness still thrive in the dark corners of our fast-paced, impatient world.  Maybe I just hadn’t been looking in the right nooks and crannies. 

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