When I was 12 yeras old I came home from school one day and sat down to do my homework. Grandma came in as I was working on a math problem. She sat down on the couch with her usual afternoon slice of buttered home-made bread and a cup of tea. I’m not sure what motivated her to say this, but she looked at me and asked me a question.
“Do you know the three most important words in the English language?”
We were a very affectionate family, both physically and verbally. Hugs and kisses were the normal order of the day. So I immediately, responded, “I love you?” I thought for sure that was the right answer.
I was surprised when grandma said, “No, those are the next most important three words. The most important words are ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’.”
I knew to say “Please” and “Thank You” and my mind raced – had I neglected to do so with someone and grandma had overheard my omission? Fortunately, grandma was emphasizing a matter of importance – rather than chastising me for a negligence I had committed.
She went on to explain, “When you are polite you show respect for the person with whom you are speaking. And because you show that person respect, he is more likely to be respectful of you. It just makes things more pleasant for everybody.”
Beyond the fact that politeness is the “right thing to do”, there is something else it accomplishes. It makes you feel good about yourself.
In this economy, many retirees have had to go back to work to supplement their incomes. I have met some of them working as baggers at local supermarkets. These jobs pay as well and are viewed as being as unimportant as grandma’s job as a dishwasher. I’m sure that some of these people feel ashamed that they have to take this kind of job just to get by. So I view an encounter with them as an opportunity to brighten their day – if only by just a little. I make a point of saying, as I leave with my groceries, “Thank you for your help, sir.”
My acknowledgment that this older gentleman has done something which I appreciate invariably brings a smile to his face. It’s such a simple thing and it’s something that each of us can do. It costs nothing but a few seconds of our time and six simple little words. I have noticed that the next time the same bagger helps me with my groceries, he usually greets me with a smile and, “How are you today?” I know that he remembers my politeness and I know that in some small way I have made his life just a little better.
There is a lot of rage in today’s America. And rage is one of the most destructive forces known to man. Politeness can be very disarming to the enraged person whom you encounter. It’s far more difficult to be angry with someone if that person shows you respect. And the first thing that we must do to rebuild and repair America is to respect each other. Without that we are certainly doomed to fail.
America is now experiencing the greatest unrest that I remember since the Vietnam War. Unrest can be good. It makes us challenge our old ideas and way of doing things and enables us to find new solutions for existing problems.
It would be foolish to believe that with the snap of a finger or the enactment of a piece of legislation we are going to fix all the problems that have been created over decades. We got where we are today over time – and it is only over time that we will unbind ourselves from the Gordian knot with which we have ensnared ourselves and our country. I wish that it were otherwise – but it isn’t. There is nobody who has yet invented the magic bullet that will solve all our problems.
Whether it is the White House or Capitol Hill, our elected officials show far more committment to getting themselves re-elected than they do toward seriously addressing the important issues which are crippling America. And if we, the voters who have hired them, sit on our hands and do nothing, they will continue to do as they have done in the past – a past which brought us to our present.
So let’s turn that rage and channel that unrest into something productive. Let’s use them as vehicles to find people who have vision and are committed to finding practical solutions for our many challenges. Let’s find long term solid answers and put aside our addiction to short term pseudo-fixes. Let’s work together for a common goal. And let’s do it politely.