Monday, October 27, 2008

Courtesy Offensive?

All the world's religious traditions have at their center the only wisdom we ever really need in life: Love Godde by whatever name; love your neighbor; love yourself. That's it. Simple. Not easy.
Recently I read an article in the Boston Globe that our beloved metropolitan transit authority (aka the MBTA, aka the T, aka the subway) was starting a "courtesy offensive." I thought aloud, "What the hell is that!? It doesn't make sense. Those two words don't go together. Offensive as a noun is usually a military term. Are we in such dire straits spiritually that we have to get aggressive about courtesy? How unmannerly is that?"
As I fumed I thought of my many T rides. I'd seen people shoving others aside to get on a crowded car; I'd seen people unconscious enough of their neighbors to sit buried in a book, ears plugged with ear buds taking in the latest musical enchantment; I'd once slid, almost lost my balance, on a newspaper someone had tossed on the floor as she exited the car. There does seem to be a painful unconsciousness of neighbors. The behavior on the T is a microcosmic. It's why we have wars and nuclear arsenals and border guards and great walls.
Now I see clever posters slapped up on the subway cars. They say things like "Don't dash without your trash" or "Be sweet give someone your seat." Courtesy-lite.
All this is a big fat spiritual and social ouch.
Then I remembered a day when I was getting smooshed on the late afternoon T out of Boston. A young attractive African American woman rose slightly, smiled and gestured to offer me her seat. I declined politely noticing that my jaw had clenched. I thought a much worse expletive than darn. I've arrived. I'm old, or at least I'm seen as older than I want to be seen as. I felt my temples as if I could discern by touch whether I had more gray hairs than I had when I glanced at the bathroom mirror this morning.
For days I thought about the woman and my age. I began to think of her small offering as a courtesy offensive without the offense. I think that is this kind of love is what all the religions talk about: courteous love—not amorous, not even liking or knowing or duty-bound. Just courteous. Having a warm heart and friendly smile is good. Having an action to go with it is better.
The woman's courtesy toward me I realized was more about her capacity for courteous love than about my age. What started as a seed of anxious irritability sown inside me was transformed and flourished into a deep appreciation for the woman and for people like her who actually notice their neighbors. It was about her love not my age.
So, as an old blessing prayer goes: Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts and minds of those who travel the way with us; so be swift to love and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of Godde be with you this day and always.