Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Instinct to Be Decent to One Another

I have a few pet peeves. One of those is when people cut in line. I have lived in countries where old ladies will elbow you out of the way to get to the front of a line. 

Another peeve comes up when I see someone get on the metro who obviously needs a seat. Maybe the person is on crutches, but the seats are all taken by young and able people absorbed in their iPhones, so the person that needs a seat is forced to stand until someone speaks up.

Despite the way it sounds so far, this isn't meant to be a moralistic rant. I have been absorbed in thought and failed to open a door for a guy with his arms full of boxes, so I'm not always better. But when we touch into our basic humanity, we are better.

Deep inside of us there is a tendency to be courteous and decent to one another. It is part of our basic goodness as humans. The trouble arises when we lose touch with our hearts and lose awareness of our surroundings.

In his book, Awake at Work, Michael Carroll talks about li, a term that may have been first used by ancient jewelers in China to refer to the natural contours of jade when cutting it. As Carroll points out, learning to do the right thing is about taking the path of least resistance. It is finding the natural contours in our interactions with people. 

When someone smiles at you, for example, it feels natural to smile back. To give them the finger would seem totally incongruous at that point, even if you don't really like that person. Smiling in this situation is natural, assuming we are living in the moment and not in some storyline about how this person said something mean last week.

Michael Carroll says: 
No rule book can teach us to extend such respect toward our fellow humans and our world. It is our li, our nature, to extend such simple and noble gestures. When we fail to acknowledge and cultivate this basic decency, rudeness, violence, and selfishness become routine and decency the exception to the rule rather than the everyday bond between people.

So next time you walk past someone on the street and s/he makes eye contact, stop for a moment and consider what response would feel right in your heart. Does it feel right to shift your gaze to the floor, or to do something else?


  1. Really thought provoking and well written post, Kipp. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting! I always feel better when I make the small effort to do the "right" or generous thing. And what a great point about it being the path of least resistance. The more you show those small kindnesses, the easier and brighter the world becomes.

    I think I disagree with Carroll's assertion that it's in our nature, however. Parents spend at least the first decade of a child's life drilling courtesy into them. We've all experienced people who don't say "thank you" or "excuse me" when they ought. They probably just don't know it's the "right" thing to do because they weren't raised that way. I also doubt those old ladies are selfish — aren't they just part of a culture that has accepted it's okay for old ladies to cut in line?

  3. CJ, this is an interesting point and something worth exploring. Definitely, don't take my word or Carroll's word for it that humans are fundamentally decent.

    Having said that, when you are in touch with a strong, clear mind, you may find that you have a natural sense of what feels right and what feels bad. Its all about using your heart as a sense organ. Most of us have forgotten how to do this.

    There is no question that we see a lot of selfishness in the world and in behaviors around us, but it is possible that these are learned behaviors, not deep expressions of what it means to be human. As I explore this deeper I've begun to think that selfishness comes from confusion, not a deep expression of who I am. In fact, some would say that the concept of self is an illusion, and it is at the core of the confusion that causes us to be "selfish." When I feel most whole and most at peace is when I feel generous, courteous, and when I am able to elicit smiles and wisdom from the people around me. If I spend a little time talking to the grocery clerk, for example, and he brightens up a little bit, I walk away feeling like something real just happened. I can feel it in my heart. It is a sense of wholeness that places little value on the self. In fact, saying "I" did that to him would ring totally hollow. It is more of a sense of wholeness that words cannot make sense of.