Human Beings Are Capable of Being Civil

Our birdfeeder is suspended from a dogwood branch outside our bathroom window. It’s protected by three two-story walls, which may explain why the birds find it so inviting. They must feel safe, because the Oregon Juncos, White-Crowned Sparrows, and Nuthatches can drain the feeder in a week.

But it could be drained faster for the birds cannot abide another bird at the trough. Regardless of the species, they will dive bomb an interloper with impunity. Relentlessly self-serving, there is not a whisper of courtesy or hospitality.

When I refill the feeder each week, the birds scatter like feral cats into the depths of our tall juniper trees. How impolite, I think. I feed them daily, and they cannot offer a chirp of gratitude? 

Perhaps you’re thinking, “They’re only birds, Allen. It’s their nature. What do you expect?”

You’re right, of course. I can’t expect gratitude from a bird, but I do from a human being.

I few days ago, I spoke to a friend who complained about a business associate who would not return an email message or a phone call.

“Well, I do know he’s a busy fellow,” I offered meekly.

“That doesn’t cut it,” my friend said. “We are all busy. We are all doing something with our time, even if it’s relaxing. It takes less than a minute to respond to an email.”

My friend was railing about something that has troubled me for years. I call it the slow death of civility. When did sending a thank-you note become passé? When did returning a call become tiresome? When did apologizing for one’s indiscretion become uncool?

Some might say, “Allen, people are like the selfish birds at the feeder. They’re only doing what comes natural.”

That’s bunk. Pooping in our pants is natural, but with a little bit of parental training we manage to tame that physical urge. After all, we all have massive brains that are very capable of evolving into polite and civil human beings.

Recently, a young man asked if I would be his mentor.

We met on several occasions over breakfast or lunch. (I paid.) I listened to his woes and, when asked, offered my advice. He made good progress. Then suddenly, he stopped taking my calls. He flat disappeared. A year later, he sheepishly reemerged. When I asked why he dropped out of sight, he said, “I was embarrassed. You were giving me so much, and I couldn’t give you anything.”

“You could give me your friendship,” I said. “It was not a competition.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Being sorry or embarrassed or busy is not good enough. Only doing the right thing is sufficient.

We can do better than the birds. We can be kinder, more in tune to others, MORE CIVIL. Or we could just continue pecking at each other as if we too had brains the size of a chickpea. 

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