by Cindy Woods

“Civilization,” wrote German film director Werner Herzog,” is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” The 2013 study, Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey, reports that “70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions. With Americans encountering incivility more than twice a day on average (2.4 times per day), and 43 percent expecting to experience incivility in the next 24 hours, dealing with incivility has become a way of life for many. Additionally, 81 percent of Americans think that incivility is leading to an increase in violence.”

Synonyms for civility include “courtesy, good manners, consideration, respect.” The concept of “please” and “thank you” should inform the consciousness of our children early on, but our collective experience suggests that people are either not taught the basics or have too soon forgotten them.

As I drive to work, drivers cut me off, tailgate, give me the finger. Friends answer their cellphones while in conversation with me. When I open the door for someone, they often don’t acknowledge me, and when I say thank you, I am usually ignored. Not only am I sometimes frightened by road rage and angered by discourtesy, I often feel hurt and defiled, a scary combination.

Citizenship means “the state of being vested with the rights, privileges and duties of a citizen; a person’s conduct as a citizen.”

Yesterday I went into my local coffee shop and was appalled by the condition of the service bar. Coagulated milk, spilled coffee, and sugar covered the counter. While I might have held the staff accountable for this mess, I was more annoyed by the people who left it. I was trained by my parents and my teachers to clean up after myself. The eighth grade citizenship award was coveted by my classmates, and I was proud to be the winner. I wonder today if there is such an award, and if there is, if that trophy stands tall among the sports trophies on the mantle, or if it is forgotten or discarded.

Chivalry takes civility and citizenship to the next level: “the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice and a readiness to help the weak.”

Years ago, when I was nine months pregnant, I was traveling on the El, with my two-year-old in a stroller. From the back of the car, I heard a voice shouting at me to fold up the stroller. Holding back embarrassed tears and stuttering apologies, I tried to manage my bag, my baby and my belly. Just as I was about to lose control, a man nearby asked if he could help. I nodded. He picked my daughter up, folded the stroller and sat by me with the baby on his lap until my stop. He escorted me off the train, opened the stroller and gently placed my daughter in it, said good day and was on his way. Chivalry was alive and well. I never forgot him. I remember his face, his clothing, his voice, and I don’t remember another meeting like it since then. That’s the sad part.

Blame can be cast in many directions, from the mud-slinging of our politicians to the social alienation brought about by reliance on social media and the Internet as primary communication vehicles. More and more, as families continue to disintegrate and sports and movie stars become role models, we rely on what we see in the media for direction on how to behave. The conflict between the words we are taught as youngsters – please and thank you – and the behaviors we view on television, in our homes and on the streets as we move through adolescence into adulthood is destructive and debilitating.

The loss of these virtues haunts our dreams of stronger relationships, a healthier planet and loving support for those without hope. But I am confident, naively perhaps, because we still dream these dreams. I believe that what we’ve lost we can find in the hearts of those who love us and that the ideals of chivalry that our forefathers died for are not forgotten. The degree to which we extend courtesy, kindness and forgiveness to our fellow citizens will determine whether we tread lightly on the ice of civilization or sink into the chaos and darkness that threaten these troubled times.

Cindy Woods is a Chestnut Hill resident and Assistant Vice President, Executive Director of People’s/Customers’ College in Wayne.

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