If you work in a city like Manhattan, it’s easy to get jaded when it comes to common courtesy. People cut you off. You cut people off. You hold the door for someone, but there’s no thank-you so you stop holding doors.
Drivers press down on their horns. You start to cuss. You sneeze and no one says, “God bless you.” Someone else sneezes, so you say nothing. It’s a race up the escalator and onto the elevator, and anyone who falters gets trampled. All of which often leads me to wonder: “Where’s the love?”
To keep the faith, every so often you need to see the love.
Common courtesy is a thing that’s in short supply. I work in a classy office building with lots of elevators, security guards and important people, except for me. Several years ago, when I migrated there from the newsroom, which was an environment that suspiciously resembled Animal House, I knew I had to become cultured.
For example, over the past five years, I’ve observed corporate protocol, and when I’m standing in a crowd of people waiting for the elevator, I always let the ladies on.
When it’s time to get off, we gentlemen stand aside and let the ladies egress. It’s like a scene out of Pride and Prejudice. Pretty soon we’ll be speaking with British accents.
I should confess that I acted like this even before I went to work in a stately building because my mother drilled it into me as a boy. I was told to hold the door for ladies; to walk on the outside of the sidewalk so my woman companion wouldn’t get splashed by water from passing cars; and to give women my seat on the train, bus or stagecoach. Now, however, I only do that if they’re old enough to apply for Social Security.
I’ve changed my operating philosophy because I figure that young women, who have their eyes glued to mobile phones, should stand while I rest my weary legs.
Since coming to the Big City, I estimate I’ve let women on the elevator ahead of me at least 5,721 times. And I estimate I’ve heard “thank you” eight times. That’s a bit discouraging for a guy struggling to stay courteous in one of the rudest cities in the world.
But now, instead of getting angry, I do what the nuns taught me many years ago, and I “offer it up.” I offer the slights up for the poor souls in purgatory, for the conversion of sinners and for the rude person. It’s not easy, but it’s getting easier.
I’ve tried, not very successfully, to look at my fellow man and woman in the city as Christ sees them. I have to because if I don’t, I can get depressed. You never know the challenges a person is facing. The fellow at the newsstand who’s grumpy day after day after day could be suffering from a chronic illness, or maybe his wife is dying.
That’s where a kind word, a kind gesture, even a smile can make a difference – even if you’re rebuffed and even if you don’t see the difference it makes. Sometimes you just have to plant the seed and leave it for someone else to water.
The Holy Spirit can take your small gesture and magnify it with wonderful results that you may never realize in this life but will appreciate fully in the next.
A place like New York offers countless opportunities to do good anonymously and without reward. I’m the kind of person who wants recognition for the good things I do, but life isn’t like that.
The church where I go to daily Mass has as many as three panhandlers within the space of a half a block. While I’m always suspicious of giving to them because I’ve heard the stories about professional beggars who return home to well-furnished apartments on the upper West Side, I’ve decided not to do the judging and instead reach into my wallet when I can and give what I can.
Either way, I’m sure they have a greater need than I do. I also know I can’t require a financial aid form from everyone on the street who puts his hand out for change.
Nevertheless, I suffer from that age-old condition that Jesus cautioned us about. I want appreciation, I want reward, even for the little acts of kindness, courtesy and generosity.
I’m like a 21st-century Pharisee who always has to remember what Christ said: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ... Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.