It happened so quickly that I was totally caught off guard.
A person that I had worked with years ago walked up the street in my direction. The sight of her made me cringe inside as we had rarely seen eye to eye. Yet, we had always been able to treat each other with respect despite our personal differences.
I smiled as she drew closer and greeted her with the most pleasant hello that I could muster. As the word met her ears, she set her jaw, raised her backbone and clenched her fists. She stared into my eyes, opened her mouth and delivered a string of toxic phrases that seemingly had festered inside of her since our last encounter.
There was no time to deflect to the barrage of insults so I just stood there and listened. Honestly, I don’t remember most of what she said, but I do remember that as she emptied out, her rage moderated and eventually stalled. And then she stopped all together; her eyes no longer drilling holes into my head; her fists relaxed; her shoulders dropped. Was she reloading or was she waiting for my reaction?
Before I tell you what happened next, permit me to take a sidebar. In the not too distant past, encounters like this were unheard of. Rude acts were rare – especially in the public square. Something has changed in today’s world. People seem more likely to choose an expression of rage then one of respect. They appear more prone to spew their viewpoints than engage in civil discourse. And, they seem incapable of seeing another’s viewpoint or situation as valid. Bottom line: our culture has become uncivil.
A free and just society can only exist when its people choose to be civil with each other. Civility is formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. It is a matter of attitude that leads us to choose to treat others hospitably and not with contempt. Civility is a matter of character; a part of our internal governance. It can only exist if we choose it.
Civility begins with personal decision to act and not react. It can manifest itself in the face of slander or rage or rudeness as long as you decide to keep your emotions in check. It is the hard work of staying present to a situation when the people involved have intense disagreements. It requires an internal calm that is coupled with a keep perception of the present circumstances. More than anything, civility compels you to lean in to God’s abundant mercy and grace. It calls you to surround your human emotions with those of Jesus Christ so that you can reveal his love – especially in the face of adversity.
Civility is not timidity or stepping down from the conflict. It is clearly an engagement and not a retreat from the situation. Sadly, in today’s world of political correctness, civility has been “redefined” as falling back into line with speaking up or stating your viewpoint. This turn of events – not dealing with the problem because one fears retribution or conflict – leads to increased anger that can easily morph into disrespect and outrage.
Let’s return to the story…
The only thing that I could say was, “I am sorry. I wish we had settled our differences years ago.” Then I stood there waiting for another round of attacks. But that didn’t happen. Instead, my fellow co-worker closed her eyes and shook her head. She quietly stated that she had wanted to yell at me for a long time. She had been very hurt by our working relationship and had let it fester inside of her. She was clear that she still didn’t like me much. But, she did apologize for her outburst. I think she said it was uncalled for.
I thanked her for the apology and admitted that our workplace relationship should have been better. I took personal responsibility for the insensitivities of that time. She alluded to ways that she could have been more considerate but still insisted that the issues were mainly my fault. I agreed to think about that and she agreed to let it go.
I asked a few questions about where she worked now, how life was and how her family was doing. She gave me a few details and then walked away. As she did, I felt a wave of gratitude that we parted on civil terms. We were still miles apart on certain ideologies but we were joined in a belief that polite disagreement was much better than emotional outbursts. I’m thankful that we found common ground at the hand of respect.
By Alice Heinzen