We hear a lot about how we should “Make America Great Again.” That assumes America isn’t great now. Most people in the world would contest that.
Can America be better? Of course. We should strive for more and better jobs, “better” and more affordable health care and coverage, “fairer” taxes, a more reasonable immigration policy, and much more.
However, defining and implementing concrete policies to promote these large objectives has been difficult. The policy ideas offered by our current political leaders have been perceived as largely partisan and lacking input from those outside the power structure.
One effect of this style of governing has been rising hostility among competing political factions. And that hostility has spread to the general public in ways that will limit the success of any program arising from any political persuasion. For any chance at real progress, we first need a renewed focus on civility.
Despite all our differences on policy and philosophy, we may be able to find common ground on making America more civil. The challenge is that many of us seldom even speak to those who vote differently. That must change.
Mere mildness will not do. To be great again — or, if you prefer, greater than it already is — America will require of its citizens a major effort to behave more courteously and considerately.
Here are six steps each of us can take to make living in America more pleasant — and, as a byproduct, to facilitate achieving other goals we desire.
1. Become more aware of other people.
People often seem oblivious to the presence of others in their space. Shoppers leave their carts in the middle of the supermarket aisle, often at an angle that effectively blocks anyone from passing, while wandering off to retrieve items from distant shelves. Sometimes they just stop in the middle of an aisle to carry on a phone conversation or to check text messages. People wearing large backpacks often swing about with no concern about knocking into others.
Those inconvenienced by these and other small, inconsiderate acts become a little more irritable and shorter-tempered every day.
The obsession with being on one’s mobile device at all times makes being aware of others almost impossible. Little eye contact occurs, and ear buds in public complete one’s isolation.
Becoming better aware of where we are, what we are doing and who is being affected not only makes our presence more agreeable for those around us, but also makes us more mindful of living in the real world.
2. Do a good deed every day.
One wonderful Boy Scout teaching is to do one good deed each day. Good deeds leave everyone feeling better — the deed doer even more than the recipient. Think about it. If one does this, it adds up to a minimum of 365 good deeds each year. And if each of the 400,000-some Minneapolis residents did one good deed per day, that would total more than 146 million good deeds each year.
If we all strove for that goal — if any meaningful number of us did — it would make a difference.
Do your good deed early in the day. It will allow for opportunities to do “bonus good deeds.”
Being the first in a crowd to do a good deed makes it easier for others to follow. Ever notice how, when one driver allows another to change lanes in the “zipper” style, many others behind tend to follow that behavior? Both the driver who allows the lane change and the driver who is given an opportunity to change lanes feel better and experience a fleeting bright moment.
Such moments add up.
3. Clean up your language.
It once was an unspoken social rule that well-mannered people did not use profanity in public. The result was that common spaces were more civilized and more pleasant to occupy.
This is not to say profanity is never justified — strong language has its place. But it should be reserved for instances when its infrequency accentuates a point. When used in every other sentence, curse words serve no purpose but to convey crassness.
And when used loudly in public, such vulgarity coarsens the general social atmosphere and makes everyone less comfortable, the way a persistent bad odor does.
4. Give others the benefit of the doubt.
Especially now, after last year’s bruising election, many believe that those who did not vote as they did must have no redeeming qualities.
Let’s assume everyone (regardless of their politics) has good traits and deserves to be treated civilly.
If one steps back and resists the temptation to “talk politics” — and, rather, converses about how people actually spend their time — it becomes obvious that we all share much in common — even with those who think and vote differently.
Engaging others of all types can only promote civility, whereas systematically “shutting out” part of society will have the opposite effect.
5. Change the world right where you are.
Many sincere people advocate passionately for large global causes (equal rights for all humanity, an end to war around the world, helping all people who are disadvantaged, persuading everyone to work on reducing global warming, getting everyone to eat healthier diets, exercise more, etc.).
Yet some who ardently champion these vast worldwide goals seem to do little to help, or merely to treat courteously, real individual people they actually encounter in daily life. A physician who once spoke at our church and who had been in Haiti after a huge hurricane was asked, “How can you help all those people when there are so many of them and so few of you?”
The answer was: “One person at a time.”
That’s a great perspective to remember in one’s daily life — in an era when so much focus is on the “big” issues that one can lose sight of the individuals whose needs and feelings one really does affect, for good or for ill, nearly every day.
6. Leave your surroundings better than you found them.
It once was a camper’s credo to “always leave the space better than you found it.” This did not merely mean cleaning up your own mess. It also meant finding some other mess that a less thoughtful camper had not cleaned up — and taking care of that, too.
This precept should be applied to life in general — not just to camping. And it should apply to nonphysical “messes,” too — such as neglected tasks and other problems at work, strife among neighbors, marital conflicts, etc., etc.
Do more than your fair share. You’ll be surprised how good it feels.
• • •
It would be easy to make America more civil.
All it would take is a commitment from each of us to focus on being more civil. The results would make everyone’s life more enjoyable, would help bridge political animosities and would bring us all together to accomplish positive things. It can start today.
Even if you aren’t up to tackling the whole six-point agenda, pick one or two items that you don’t focus on now, and give them a try. You’ll feel better, and happier, and America will be just a little bit greater.
Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, is a semiretired marketing executive and researcher.