I’m trying to recall what civility feels like. Remember civility, that quaint notion of public and private discourse characterized by mutual respect and an absence of screaming and name-calling? Mostly, it feels like a distant memory.
I’m also trying to recall a period when the lead story on every news outlet wasn’t about war, or rumors of war, or another mass shooting or the latest vitriol-spewing politician.
There is ample evidence to suggest that these are not the worst of times. I came of age during the Vietnam War, an era that ripped the country apart. My parents lived through the Great Depression and World War II and had the first-person narratives to prove it. History reminds us that violent discord is nothing new. In 1856, a dispute over slavery prompted a cane-wielding Preston Brooks of South Carolina to go after Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The Broadway hit Hamilton chronicles the life of the first Secretary of the Treasury, killed in an 1804 duel by the sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr.
The fact that strife goes way back seems like cold comfort in today’s 24-hour news cycle. A click of the remote or a swipe of the phone calls up a new catalog of horrors, a fresh supply of tweets to ignite rage and division. I alternate between vowing to turn it all off and muttering unprintable words at the screen.
And then I wonder what an ordinary person living an unremarkable life could do to change a climate of negativity and fear.
Mr. Rogers, a prophet in a cardigan sweater and sneakers, often quoted his mother. Faced with scenes of violence and destruction, she offered this advice: Look for the helpers.
I thought of this while watching coverage of the Sept. 11 anniversary. From the first responders charging up the stairs of the towers to the stranger offering an arm to a stumbling office worker, the helpers were the only visible agents of hope.
I saw it again in a recent news story about a rescue group in Syria, volunteers who comb the ruins of bombed buildings for survivors. Whatever their political affiliations, they put them aside to save the lives of other human beings.
Closer to home was a story about two nuns, brutally murdered last month in their home in rural Mississippi. They worked in a medical clinic nearby, providing the only health care available to the poor of the area. As I watched the news coverage and listened to interviews with clinic patients who described the sisters’ unfailing compassion, I struggled to understand why these helpers were struck down in the midst of their vitally important work.
The only answer that surfaced was a question that repeated itself in my mind: What am I doing right now to foster peace, civility, hope?
I thought about making a donation to the clinic, about supporting the rural poor in my own county. These are good ideas, as far as they go. It is unlikely that I will become a medical missionary or a social worker at this point in my life.
But I also thought about smaller, less apparent ways of cultivating peace. I thought about judgment and its power to limit generosity of spirit. I thought about silence, and how it nurtures clarity of thought and action. I reflected on the vast universe of things I don’t know, and how I might give people the benefit of the doubt. I considered the cumulative effect of saying the word that lifts up rather than the word that casts down.
I thought about the scenes of chaos that confront us on the news every day, and about looking for the helpers. It gives me hope when I see one. Someday, I would like to be one.
Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.
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