Civility: a spiritual basis

A Christian Science perspective. Civility, rooted in a love for God and our neighbor, goes beyond just using polite language.

The last time I swore, it surprised me.

I had been working hard to prepare for a meeting, and a dear friend arrived to help with the final preparations. I wasn’t upset about anything, but I carelessly peppered my sentences with crude language. My language didn’t actually convey at all what I really wanted to say to my friend. I was glad to see her and glad for her help. There was nothing to complain about.

Thinking it through afterward, I remembered a time in college when I swore as a way of making people laugh. They thought it was funny that such a religious person had such a foul mouth. Later, I could see that it wasn’t right to speak in a way that countered my own real nature as a child of God. It took mental alertness to break the habit, but I did. So why did I revert to using this kind of language, so many decades later?

Intense emotion has a way of exaggerating itself through misused language. In this case I was feeling great relief at having finished a difficult assignment, and carelessness was displacing what I honestly felt: humble gratitude. What if the vulgarity was simply the counterfeit of words more honest?

When a difficult exchange ends up with one person calling another a gross name, maybe there’s a more honest response – such as admitting that we wish we could find common ground to solve the problem at hand. Or when we find out someone has betrayed us, instead of denigrating them, we can turn inward in prayer to realize more of our own divine nature as a promise of theirs.

When something bad happens suddenly, wouldn’t the alternative to spewing expletives be to thank God for the divine presence and power that ameliorate the situation? Think of how many arguments could be defused by yielding to this proverb: “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).

At its core, civility isn’t an issue of choosing our words carefully. Civility is an issue of attitude. Ultimately we will discover that every human exchange bears the promise of blessing instead of cursing each other. The more we can admit that God is always at hand and loving each one of us as His children, the more we’ll treat each other in ways guided by our common Father-Mother, God.

The self-control this implies is based in the joy of knowing our relationships within God’s family. The intensity of human affairs and circumstances may challenge that basis of reality, but to consciously agree that we have a common spiritual heritage helps temper the instinct that is quick to condemn and dismiss others.

The founder of this newspaper suffered more than her share of indignities, calamities, and heartaches. But Mary Baker Eddy gave this advice for when we’re tempted to misspeak our divine nature and belittle someone else’s: “We should endeavor to be long-suffering, faithful, and charitable with all. To this small effort let us add one more privilege – namely, silence whenever it can substitute censure” (“No and Yes,” p. 8).

That advice promises a whole lot more quiet, and a whole lot more civility, in the world!

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