Brian Pettice mentioned in his piece Character & Making Good Men Better earlier this week, a discussion I lead at Admiration Chapter on the topic of character. I won’t rehash his piece but to say I too got a lot out of the discussion, and I was surprised at some of the insights our members shared. One topic that comes up over and over is this topic of civility. Brian has lead a discussion on this topic, too. I think the reason our members are so interested in this topic is because there is so little of it being shown in our world today. We don’t see good examples of civility, and often we don’t display good examples of civility.
I believe there are certain prerequisite skills in character development. I've been asked many times where you should start when it comes to improving yourself. Well, I'm going to tell you. I'd start right here with these three traits. There are many more, but I see these as fundamental character traits. They are necessary for true growth because just about every other positive character trait you may wish to work on in your life links back in one way or another to these three foundational elements. And when it comes to basic civility, you'll find much of the conflict in your life will evaporate if you begin improving yourself in these three areas first.
One of those basics is self-discipline. Without the ability to control ourselves and our behavior, there is no possibility of improvement. Freeemasonry has always understand that . . . it goes back to that “learn to subdue my passions and improve myself” line we all know so well. When it comes to civility, self-discipline is probably the most important skill—so much of incivility is careless speech and actions--and in recent years this has clearly been exacerbated by social media. We get caught up in the moment, and something comes out that shouldn't have. When we learn to think before we speak, act, or post something we will prevent a lot of conflict that leads to incivility.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” Humility is not a weakness—it is a strength. It is also one of the most difficult traits to develop, because it requires us to take ourselves out of the equation. We don’t put ourselves and our own needs first, we work to do what is best for all. It requires us to be more concerned with doing what is right rather than being right. Humility is the acceptance of the reality of who we are—and without question we are all fallible human beings and should conduct ourselves as such.
Empathy is the ability to understand and concern ourselves with other people—understand how they think, how they feel, what they believe, and why they believe it. It requires us to listen rather than speak. It requires us to open our minds and really try to understand the minds of others. We too often fall into this mindset that there is only one way to think about a subject, or one way to feel about a topic, and anyone who disagrees with us is just wrong. That's a big cause of incivility. Lack of understanding. Everyone talks but nobody listens--and we miss out on a great many benefits. When we become attuned to the way others think it helps us in our own lives, and our own development—it helps us understand how the things we may say and do may be received. When we’re paying attention to other people and their reactions, it might also help us to see how we come off to other people and give us an opportunity to improve in our deportment and our communication. We don't have to agree, but what we should always be looking to achieve is understanding and respect even when we don't.
Oddly enough all three of these traits are also import skills to develop for leadership. Self-discipline is necessary if you want to be an example. Humility is putting the needs of the many before the needs of the one. And empathy is that most sought after ability to connect and understand other people. Can you imagine what kind of world we could build if we’d only work to improve ourselves in just these three areas?
Next time you see an example of incivility, think of these three things. I’d be willing to bet you’ll find at least one, possibly two, or maybe even all three of the characteristics involved. Conflict often begins because somebody said something he should have known better than to say. It started because somebody is being selfish and putting their own needs first. It started because somebody is set in their own mind and isn’t willing to try and understand another point of view.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about.