“Thank you so much for everything.” This, the last thing my grandmother said to me. Just as we were both about to go to sleep, she reached for my hand, held it firmly in her frail palm, consciously swallowed, and then, ever so slowly and faintly, began to speak.
“Thank you so much for everything.” Her words barely audible, her message crystal clear.
Two weeks later she passed away, those her last spoken words, although through her eyes she managed to communicate continual love and wisdom. When she took her final breaths, this time me squeezing her hand tightly and thanking her, I felt as if I could see her soul leave her body, something I was utterly unprepared for and still do not fully comprehend. Despite a devastating stroke that inhibited her ability to speak and eat for months, her soul penetrating demonstrations of civility and manners remain.
The word manners stems from the Latin, manuārius, meaning, belonging to the hand, and manuāria, or way of handling things. In the 19th century, manners became synonymous with a smaller code of ethics, or as the philosopher David Hume defined it, “a kind of lesser morality.”
Manners are not innate; they are learned. The most elemental ones we are theoretically taught as children. The rest we develop either through formal education or human interaction. Starting with please, thank you, and hello, manners are the basic virtues that we carry together as a people, virtues that ultimately inspire community spirit and engender the soul of our cities, towns, and society as a whole. Graciousness, thoughtfulness, patience, and decency towards others in the smallest details of daily life are the mannered minutiae that pepper the quality of our daily existence.
Right now we carry the soul of our society in our hands. Yet conversations from friends and colleagues across the globe have highlighted a trend, dare I say, second pandemic, of impatience, hostility, and abject rudeness. From tales of incessant honking to getting quasi sideswiped by speeding cars, to arguments over the difference between six inches and six feet, to refusals to follow local rules or wear masks, to adults cutting in line like pesky school children, it appears as if we have either lost our minds, or our manners.
I, myself, have been witness to my fair share of jaw dropping insanity, most recently as a customer at the grocery store brought the cashier to tears over a fifty cent shopping bag surcharge, so irate she ultimately stuffed five packs of hot dog buns in her $20,000 Hermès Berkin and stormed out, screaming. Cool.
In part, I comprehend. We as a people are emotionally exhausted and energetically frayed. Our willpower has been pushed to its limits, our strength contorted in new directions, our stamina driven to its threshold. But as my grandmother demonstrated until the end, that should never affect how we handle each other.
For over a hundred days, our personal souls were confined to isolation, the souls of our cities forced into hibernation. Yet, unlike when a human soul is irreparably separated from its body, a civic soul can be reunited with its tangible expression, its energy reconnected to its architecture and establishments. The soul of a city can be brought back to life, with it, its culture, and through it, our civil society.
Now, as our cities and towns reopen, we must consider how each of us and our manners will influence their renewed existence, starting by acknowledging how inextricably intertwined the soul of the I is to the soul of the we.
After all, manners are nothing without humanity; humanity is nothing without society. While our personal manners are a reflection of our individual soul, our collective civility is the bedrock of the soul of us, the people.
I, for one, am going to do my best to infuse it with masked smiles, elegant comradery, grace, and thanks, just as my grandmother taught me.