“In Courtesy I'd Have Her Chiefly Learned”

Hearts are not had as a gift, but hearts are earned

By those that are not entirely beautiful.

These are some lines from one my favorite poems, “A Prayer for My Daughter,” by one of my all-time favorite poets, William Butler Yeats. They came to mind this morning as we were out walking; we came to a crowded street and each of the people walking stopped to let one another pass a narrow space so we didn’t come too close. Most people were also wearing masks.

We live in San Francisco, where such courtesy is generally expected. (Not at all beside the point is that we now have one of the lowest Covid infection rates in the country.) But it brought to mind just how we have lost as a society, and how much we could recover, with attention simple courtesy.

Wearing a mask is a sign of caring not only for ourselves but for each other. It’s also a visible sign: No one wears a vaccination card around their necks, but everyone can see a mask. It’s not — or it shouldn’t be — a case of being selfless or altruistic; it’s just a matter of common courtesy.

Or it should be. Courtesy is nowhere near as common as it used to be. Courtesy has a necessary predicate: you acknowledge the other person as a human being worthy of respect. That is what sticks in the craw of too many people these days. Ann Coulter’s book title How to Talk to a Democrat (If You Must)  (and no, I’m not linking to it) says it all: People unlike yourself don’t deserve respect.

But of course no one is exactly like anyone else, so eventually that attitude is applied is everyone else. Rude is now the normal in politics. Just look at what happened to Liz Cheney when she showed what used to be ordinary courtesy to the President of the United States.

Carry Yeats’s line a bit further. The Former Guy is the last thing from beautiful, much less “entirely beautiful” — but he ‘s convinced himself he is, and therefore he doesn’t have to earn hearts. They will be given to him as gifts. Unfortunately, he has bullied and cowed the Republicans into going along with him. Everything they do now has value for them only if it is a gift to He Who Must Must Be Worshiped (forget “Obeyed”; that was last week’s requirement).

There are many things we have to do now to repair our country. I submit that one of them is restoring “ordinary courtesy” to its prior state where it really is ordinary, to the point where someone who lacks such courtesy will be automatically ostracized as a pariah who needs to be taught some manners. Think of the angst and tsuris we would all have been saved if the GOP — which at the time knew better — had done that to Former Guy back in 2015. He is the one Yeats could have had mind in these lines:

Consider beauty a sufficient end,

Lose natural kindness and maybe

The heart-revealing intimacy

That chooses right, and never find a friend.

President Biden is doing his part on courtesy, let’s be clear. He’s doing it so automatically  and naturally that we sometimes forget just how rare that’s become. We need to keep that front and center, so that the American public will be reminded over and over just how valuable courtesy is.

There’s a last passage from Yeats’s poem that comes to mind:

Yet many a poor man that has roved,

Loved and thought himself beloved,

From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

  • May 8, 2021