Discover more from Civic Renaissance with Alexandra Hudson
The Profundity of Presence with Others
And an update on "The Soul of Civility"
Modern life is harried.
It’s easy to go through our days with our minds fixed on our to-do lists, our goals, our tasks—and to miss the profound and beautiful opportunities to connect with others in our daily lives.
I’ve been inundated the past few weeks and months with more banal tasks and to-dos than I would have liked—or even previously imagined. To complete those banal tasks I’ve had banal conversations. In doing so, I know I’ve missed opportunities to improve others, to be fully present with them, to enjoy the privileges—and discharge the responsibilities— of encountering them.
We too often overlook the power and beauty in our small and everyday exchanges with others, strangers and loved ones alike.
I think about this a lot, because, as a mother of two (aged three and one), time seems to pass quickly. I find myself hungering for life hacks that allow me to squeeze more time out of each day. I’m constantly reminding myself to slow down, and to savor every moment with all my loved ones during this precious, fleeting season.
It’s tempting to focus on the next call I have to make, meal I have to cook, errand to run, or email to send. But I strive to cultivate the attitude of mindfulness that helps me appreciate each moment and allows me to be fully present with whomever I’m beside. Strengthening this mindfulness muscle with my kids helps me show up better in other areas of my life, and being present with others in turn helps me bring my best self to my children.
It’s sometimes easier to seek meaningful exchanges with our loved ones and overlook the possibility for beauty in our quotidian exchanges with innumerable strangers. But choosing to be present for both groups is a mutually reinforcing exercise.
Putting our phones away and cleaning our minds of distractions when we’re with loved ones helps us appreciate the beauty and dignity of humanity writ large. And by making it a habit to pay attention to strangers and making the most of how we interact with them, it helps us show up better for loved ones.
The Profundity of Presence with Others
I recently encountered the work of a Korean poet that lent beautiful words to the possibility and beauty in our meetings with strangers in our everyday lives.
There is a profundity to every human interaction. Every moment with another person is an enormous privilege and responsibility.
Here is how South Korean poet Jeong Hyeonjong (romanized as Chong Hyon-jong), puts it in his poem “A Visitor.”
The coming of a person
is, in fact, a tremendous feat.
comes with his past and present
with his future.
Because a person’s whole life comes with him.
Since it is so easily broken
the heart that comes along
would have been broken — a heart
whose layers the wind will likely be able to trace,
if my heart could mimic that wind
it can become a hospitable place.
The opportunity to come together in any given moment, for any reason great or small, is an enormous gift. It’s a privilege, a responsibility, a “tremendous feat.”
We each bring a story—one that has been, one that is, and one that will be—to every interaction.
We each have heartaches and heartbreaks — invisible to others — that inform how we interact with others.
We are all complex, multi-layered, impossible to essentialize or reduce to one aspect of who we are. We are the sum of numberless conversations and decisions — both our own and others — some over which we have had control and others over which we have been powerless.
“If my heart could mimic that wind, it can become a hospitable place,” Hyeonjong writes.
We can choose the disposition of our hearts for when we show up to others. There is a duality to every human interaction — an opportunity for harmony or conflict, joy or sorrow, peace or violence. This duality to our interactions reflects the duality in our nature — greatness and wretchedness, as Blaise Pascal wrote.
Embodying the duality to our interactions with others, the words “hospitality” and “hostility” share the same root — the Latin hospes, which means both “guest” and “host.”
In our interactions with others, will we choose to have hearts of hospitality, as Hyeonjong notes, or hostility?
Finding beauty in life’s everyday moments
A study by Jane Dutton, an organizational psychologist at the University of Michigan, demonstrates how the small choices we make when it comes to our interactions with others can have a major impact in terms of how people value themselves.
Dutton interviewed the janitorial staff at a midwestern hospital to mine their experience of being valued in the workplace. Though they are essential, unfortunately cleaning staff is among the most frequently overlooked and undervalued.
In more than 200 stories from 28 janitors, Dutton found that brief interactions — such as giving a command without a requisite “please,” or worse, ignoring them entirely — made the janitor’s work feel unappreciated and made their life feel less valuable, too.
In the same way that thoughtless acts can harm, small, considerate acts can ennoble. One janitor recalled the patients who greeted him as he entered a room. He said, “They look at you like a person, you know?”
Author Emily Esfahani Smith reflects on this study in her book The Power of Meaning: “The beauty of a high-quality connection is that you don’t have to overhaul the culture at your workplace to create meaning. Anyone, in any position, can do so… We can say “Hello’ to a stranger on the street rather than avert our eyes. We can choose to value people rather than devalue them.”
I love these words from Fred Rogers: “If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet, how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
As I write in my book The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, no interaction is neutral. We never know where people are or what they’re going through, and each interaction is an opportunity to debase or elevate someone’s day and life. Consideration of others helps us survive in community; kindness toward others without thought of reciprocation helps us flourish. Maximize life’s everyday moments.
We can choose to become “artisans of the common good,” as Pope Francis once said. When we encounter another person, remember that we’re interacting with another human being — a miracle of life, a person with irreducible dignity and worth.
Don’t take that for granted.
Celebrate it by elevating and making the most of small encounters with all whom we meet.
P.S. October 10th is fast approaching! It’s hard to believe that the publication of The Soul of Civility is only four months away. I had a call yesterday with the PR and marketing team who are leading the launch of my book in Canada — where I was raised — and it was encouraging to hear from him that, from what he’s read of the book so far, the ideas about the timeless principles of human flourishing map on to the Canadian context.
For example, Canadians pride themselves on being “nice” and “polite” — but central to my book is that there is an essential difference between politeness and civility. Politeness is manners alone, and often patronizes others and diminishes difference. Civility is a disposition of the heart that respects people enough to tell them hard truths in hard conversations and debates. Claiming that politeness isn’t a worthy ideal to strive for cuts to the quick of the myth of Canadian niceness, a core, self-constructed identity. But I love — and respect — Canada enough to do so! (If you’re a Canadian and reading this, write to me, and let me know what you think of this at email@example.com)
Also, I’m working hard on finalizing the many high-value perks for those who have pre-ordered my book! I’m excited about tall of them, especially the course, Four Civility Books That Will Change Your Life. Pre-order the book now before you forget to ensure you get these and many other FREE gifts!