If you came here for humor, this may be a week you'd like to skip. This week, it's time for a refresher course on being human. And the Curmudgeon is feeling a bit serious about the subject. There is a way things are supposed to be. There's a way we're meant to conduct ourselves with one another. This is an idea that used to be called "common decency" but has now become anything but common, largely because it seems everything these days (traditions, protocols, facts, science, history, and even truth itself) is considered no more than a menu item, to be chosen or rejected based entirely on personal tastes, preferences, and convenience. If it doesn't suit us, it's branded false, wrong, or too troublesome to consider. But from where I sit, the basic requirements of humanness are the same as they've always been. They’re the same ones we were taught as children—the ones that, deep down, we know to be sacrosanct. And these ought to be lovingly revered, studied, treasured, taught, cultivated, sustained, and adhered to, even in a world gone mad. So here are a few reminders of things we all used to know.
We're supposed to aspire to be virtuous people. Even if we fail often, this should be the desire, at least. We're supposed to aspire to live ethical, productive, kind, dignified existences, and to try not to be jerks. We should hope to do the right thing. Lying should be a last resort, and honor should be a higher priority than wealth, popularity, convenience, or personal fulfillment. We're supposed to want to be good—as good as we can manage to be. And when we fall short of the goodness to which we aspire, we ought to feel shame. Yes, shame. Shame is an undervalued emotion these days. It's the thing that lets us know we haven't completely shut off our consciences. It motivates us do better the next time. Sometimes shame (or, more accurately, the desire to avoid it) can even stop us from doing the wrong thing in the first place. Imagine the number of fights, thefts, cons, perversions, infidelities, cyberbullying, shady business dealings, and other wrongs that might have been circumvented had a strong sense of shame come into play.
We ought to practice humility. We ought not to brag, nor think of ourselves too highly, nor flaunt our advantages in the faces of those who are not as fortunate. We ought to also have the humility to realize that we don't know everything, and might be able to learn from others, particularly those with expertise or experience. Perhaps the idea of humility sounds stuffy and old fashioned to a generation whose greatest aspiration seems to be to photograph itself as many times and in as many locations as possible, whose music often tends toward boasting about oneself while discrediting others (a current popular song proclaims, "I'm the one, yeah, I'm the one, yeah. Yeah, you're sick of all those other imitators. Don't let the only real one intimidate you. See you watchin', don't run outta time now. I'm the one, yeah." One can easily find more examples, though they're mostly profane and/or unintelligible). But on the contrary, humility is a lovely and highly desirable quality. It enables us to keep growing and to celebrate the accomplishments of others. And until fairly recently, it was an attitude to which all decent people aspired. Arrogance was always considered vulgar. Today, people seem to confuse arrogance with confidence and humility with low self-esteem. It's time to revisit this gracious quality and embrace it anew.
We're supposed to factor the needs and comfort of others into our decisions. That requires an awareness that there are other people in the world beside oneself. Things like littering, loud public behavior, breaking commitments, cutting in line, talking during movies, dominating conversations, leaving empty toilet paper rolls, succeeding at the expense of others . . . these reveal a mindset that puts self above all. It's an approach to living that is unseemly and ugly. (It's also impractical, because inevitably, people need each other. But that aside, it simply isn't nice or right.) Consideration should be the norm. We're not—and it's hard to believe this needs to be said—supposed to be unkind. We're not supposed to hurt each other's feelings. We're not supposed to go out of our way to insult, intimidate, harass, bully, or ridicule. The Internet has revealed a shockingly dark element of our natures. It seems there are many who, given the opportunity and the cover of anonymity, will be unkind simply for sport. They'll hurt people's feelings for no other reason than that they can. And this, strangely, they find appealing. The Curmudgeon is baffled. The entertainment value of unprovoked cruelty is lost on me; I'm not quite sure why anyone would find that appealing. Then again, I come from a generation that remembers the way things are supposed to be. And back when people of my age were growing up, unkind behavior was punished and shamed. Kids were taught The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." It's strange to find the world upside down to the point where it has to be explained that unkindness isn't a quality one ought to embrace.
Also, we're supposed to practice personal responsibility. That means we show up where we're supposed to be, on time, without requiring a reminder. That means when we're at work, we do our very best to represent our employers favorably. It means paying our bills, voting, honoring our word, accepting the consequences of our mistakes, and practicing good citizenship. Personal responsibility—that’s the way things are supposed to be.
None of these practices are fancy, nor do they require an upscale education or breeding. They're not even overly gracious or well-mannered. These ideas represent the very minimum of what it means to have basic common decency. They can't be legislated. They can't be enforced—nor should they be. They can't even be demanded. It falls to each individual member of this human race to recognize the merits of fundamental humanness and to hold it as a personal standard. Rather than dropping the bar to suit the times, we ought to hold that bar up with all our mights, with stubborn resolve and an absolute refusal to slip back into the uncivilized goo from which we came.
And this, I think, is why I write this blog—all kidding aside—to fight against a sort of creeping, cancerous, undetected redefinition of things. If we give up on the idea that there is such a thing as right and wrong, correct and incorrect in regard to language, behavior, or what have you, then what's to stop us from abandoning the idea that there is such a thing as true and false, moral and immoral, good and bad?
And of course, it's unlikely that anyone reading this piece would need such reminders. And that, I suppose, is the great dilemma: how do we reach the people who've forgotten their most fundamental responsibilities to one another? I suppose we'll have to lead by example and hope the devolving heathen see the light. But if they don't, if decency is dead, then I honestly believe we are in the midst of a gradual doom, caused by a willful, self-induced global amnesia.
I'll try to come up with something less grim for next week . . . no promises.