Read an Excerpt of Choosing Civility
"We must be as courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
—Paul of Tarsus
I have always found the passage on strangers and angels in the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews rich in both meaning and poetic resonance. The overt meaning is clear: the Apostle is encouraging the faithful to be generous because there might be divine messengers among those they will benefit. Whenever I think of Paul's entrancing words, however, I see a related meaning developing from them, like a branch growing from a tree trunk. This second message is: Be generous because, whether you are aware of it or not, there is a spark of divinity in all of those you will benefit. Be generous to the angel in all of us. In other words: think the best of your fellow humans and act accordingly.
Thinking the best of others is a decent thing to do and a way of keeping a source of healthful innocence in our lives. When we approach others assuming that they are good, honest, and sensitive, we often encourage them to be just that. In my role as a teacher, my drive and enthusiasm in the classroom owe much to my assumption that all of my students are essentially good human beings, interested in the pursuit of knowledge, and willing to work hard. Believing that they are good, I want to be good for them. I feel challenged to match their excellence. Am I deluding myself in thinking the best of them? At times, perhaps I am. But what really counts is that almost: all of them will rise to the occasion, riding the tide of my trust. As I think the best of them, they will be shaped by the credit I am willing to give them. They will begin to become what I think they are. This is one of teachers' greatest rewards.
Even outside the classroom I expect that everyone I meet will turn out to be good rather than bad. I have felt this way all of my life. What I find exciting in a new acquaintance is the thought: Maybe I'm making a discovery here; maybe someone entering my life who is nice. That's what gives me joy: the possibility of goodness. I appreciate exceptional intelligence, I can be changed by beauty, and I am intrigued by charisma. But I will be moved by goodness. Of course I am aware that not all those I meet can be paragons of goodness. Still, my bet with myself is that they will be nice to me. I think of my goodwill as an unspoken challenge to them and envision that our lives will be made better by our interaction.