Lately I have been dissatisfied with the quality of my interactions with one of my children: lots of frustration from me, lots of upset from the child. I talked it over with Mark and he suggested I try a little focused reading, since that's often my first step when I have a problem to solve.
And so on my Saturday morning I wandered into a brick-and-mortar bookstore so I could browse the shelves. Even though the selecton in such a store is more limited than online, I often find it much more satisfying to pick up books and page through them, dipping in here and there with the instant responsiveness that paper still has over web pages in spades, hefting the books to see if they will fit in my bag, comparing tables of contents side by side.
I chose a couple of books on the specific topic I was after, but while I was hunting around found myself drawn to a slim little book somewhere in the Psychology And Relationships section. On a whim, I unslotted it from its place and took it home.
From the author description on the back:
Dr. P. M. Forni teaches Italian literature and civility at Johns Hopkins University.... A native of Italy, he lives with his wife in Baltimore, Maryland.
"Italian literature and civility?" Don't you want to know more? I did. I think that's what drew me in. The first part of the book is a brief reflection on the importance of civility in human relationships both brief and lasting; the middle of the book is the "twenty-five rules of considerate conduct" mentioned in the title; and the last bit appears to be a few meditations on rudeness. The chapters are quite short, almost meditations; each rule is discussed over maybe six pages.
What follows is not so much a book review as an invitation to think about civility and the "twenty-five rules" Forni proposes, and meditates upon, in his little book.
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I'm not sure whether the average reader would find the book to be especially profound or insightful. I think most of us know already a great deal of what's presented in here. Reading through the list of rules in the table of contents, I certainly don't disagree with the inclusions -- although one could debate whether to expand or contract this "top 25" list, or whether to swap in different rules.
I think what appealed to me most was the idea that I might pick it up and read just one chapter every day or two, and then -- being reminded rather simply of something I already knew, rather than being motivated by any special profundity -- strive harder than I had been to live by its rule. Maybe some of it would stick. I also liked the universality of the approach: it appears to be meant for everyone, a sort of distillation of "getting along peacefully with others" wisdom. Different people may have different philosophies that underlie their notions of why we might want to be kind and considerate to others; this book is mainly about "how."
The author quotes a novel I read long ago: "Forget love. Try good manners." It is a flippant line from one character to another, but it does underline the point that good manners can be the first step to forming a heart of love, or -- if one is paralyzed by the theory of love -- the first act that makes the idea a visible reality.
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And so for the past few days I have been turning over in my mind Forni's first and second rules. And trying to practice them -- for want of many other people to practice on -- with the children, at home.
Rule 1 is Pay Attention.
[A]ttention is a tension connecting us to the world around us. Only after we notice the world can we begin to care for it. Every act of kindness is, first of all, an act of attention. We may see a coworker in need of a word of encouragement, but it is only if we pay attention that we may do something about it. We may hear a child cry, but again, our help is contingent upon our stopping and taking notice....
I am not just talking with a colleague but with this colleague... I am not just critiquing the work of a student. I am speaking to this individual student...
...When we pay attention we do justice to the presence of others in our lives... Through it we confer value upon the lives of others. When I show you that you are worthy of attention, I am acknowledging and honoring your worth.
I immediately thought of how important it is to give full attention to children talking to us, how easy it is to answer their questions without ever turning a face toward them. I do that a lot, and I thought it would be a small thing to keep in mind and try to work on.
I considered, too, how I signify attention in other ways. Some years ago, frustrated by how often I got distracted during the homily in Mass, I tried a trick to activate the attention-paying parts of my brain: I started taking notes, at least when the child-minding situation allowed for it.
Mind you, I never ever looked at the notes I took a second time. I already was in the habit of keeping a throwaway notebook and a pencil in my bag, the sort of thing you keep in case you have to write down a phone number or something. I didn't buy a special journal just for reflections on the homily. I didn't even make reflections on the homily; I just took notes as if there would be a test on the material. I spent a lot of years taking notes in my previous life, you know. It was back before everyone had their laptop open in college classrooms (and I am still an old-fashioned believer in paper-and-pen notetaking, at least until tablets become responsive enough to register the fine pressure differences that signal faint variations in emphasis from an interested scribe). I found that the act of taking notes made me pay attention, as I worked to distill the main points and use the space on the page to put them in relation to each other. I don't know that I remembered more afterwards -- but I was more present in the moment.
(I don't know if I looked more present to others, but they should have been minding their own business.)
Anyway, thinking about that, I decided to take the notebook with me the next time I sat down with my temporarily frustrating, frustrated child for the lessons we were finding so hard. As we talked about the material and I heard back, I took notes -- just a few -- not a lot -- I didn't want to give the impression I was psychoanalyzing, just that I was paying attention. I watched closely, eye to eye, and memorized which parts were hard so that I could jot it down there in our session.
It is too early to tell if it will make a big difference, but it feels like a way that might help me to remain focused. Above all to remember that one of my goals in every lesson is not just "get through this lesson," "convey facts and teach skills," but also -- connect. Connecting is not something that comes naturally to me, not connecting to people. Perhaps it seems a little weird but I will have to try it -- connect the way I know how to connect in my bones, pretend that people are information -- it isn't untrue if it is a bit reductive -- and that might well be better than nothing, maybe my best, and turning our best face to someone in honesty is perhaps all we're asked to do.
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Rule 2 is Acknowledge others.
Acknowledge others' existence, their importance to you, their feelings, and the things they do for you...
A greeting is a minimal yet meaningful conferral of honor on a person for just being a person. With it, not only do we acknowledge and validate, but we also put at ease and wish well. We announce that we intend no harm and express our concern for the well-being of others. As we do so, we invite others to look upon us with the same benign disposition we have toward them. This is the stuff civility is made of.
And yet we often play the game of invisibility. We see someone we know coming our way, but instead of saying hello or even just nodding our acknowledgment, we proceed as if that someone weren't there...
We can't feel gregarious every moment of our lives. At times we will be... protective of our space and mind. And that's all right. Sometimes we need that... We can, however, do without the invisibility game.
I was relieved to read Forni's acknowledgment (hm) that we need, sometimes, to protect ourselves from too much outreach. But I think he's right that -- at least when we are not dealing with people known to violate boundaries aggressively and take every acknowledgment as an invitation -- we don't, probably, have to preemptively protect ourselves from merely acknowledging people, even when we're already feeling extended.
As for applying this one to my own interactions, it's back to the very beginning, where Forni lists the four aspects of persons to acknowledge:
- their existence
- their importance to me
- their feelings
- the things they do for me.
Greetings; expressions that say "I value you;" some room for difficult or exuberant inner states; and gratitude. I could do with putting those out there more often than I do. This next few days I am going to try.