May First, 2020

Another Voice is back after a post-Easter break for a bit of R&R and taking care of the home front. How our pandemic-shaken world has changed since Easter! 

Pandemic history and folklore are something I grew up with. My paternal grandfather, Alonzo William Dick, an authentic hoosier schoolmaster, died in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919. That pandemic lasted almost 36 months from January 1918 to December 1920. My grandmother, Mary Elen Jarrett, and their five boys survived but Mary Ellen and most of the boys could not attend Alonzo’s funeral because they were bed-ridden and critically ill with the flu. In my childhood I found this a frightening  story.

I was very close to my grandmother because she lived about a hundred yards from our home in a small house my dad had built for her. She was often housemother, housekeeper and cook. My mother and father were very active people.

Maryellen was a courageous and strong woman, but what characterized her (and her five sons) the most were the virtues of care, compassion, and civility.

Care, compassion, and civility are what I appreciate so much from my family and helpful friends in these Covid-19 days BUT exactly the very humane virtues I miss in today’s angry demonstrators, and so many religious and political “leaders.” They talk Christ but display none of his spirit.

Civility means much more than politeness, although politeness is indeed an important first step. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.

Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal power in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Civility means that despite different perspectives we still have a shared vision and collaborate to make it a reality.

When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History amply demonstrates that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.

The message this week is small. The task awaiting us is enormous. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues, etc. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.

At the end of this week, we can all reflect on the message in Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law, who wanted to justify himself, stood up to test Jesus and so he asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Be healthy and safe!


Alonzo William and Mary Ellen on their wedding day 1902

10 thoughts on “Care, Compassion, and Civility

  1. It’s great to have you back, Jack!! I’ve missed you. Thank you for this wonderful reminder and shot in the arm during these challenging times while some of us find ourselves slogging through days of restrictions and bad news. Although you say your message is small, what a great distance it can take us during our days of restricted movement and interaction. Being civil and compassionate toward others lifts everyone’s spirits and hearts. Because the news is filled with a lot that is opposite (we need a vaccine against them), as you say, we often forget the joy those old and enduring qualities bestow. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Jack, I think you have your grandfather’s eyes and grandmother’s complexion. Be well.

  3. Jack

    Your reflection on civility has hit a nerve. The example of your grandmother makes clear that civility arises only from a very gracious person. As one concerned with grace, therefore, your challenge created a question for me. How can I possibility speak civilly about Donald Trump? He evokes from me a rage of reactions. I wish him no evil; I have not doubts about his salvation, but I feel a need to attack his comments with utter contempt. Is it the contempt the makes my reaction uncivil? I admire and support the people who are trying to bring civility into our public discourse. The press often provokes people being interviewed as if it is looking for an uncivil comment. It is amazing to see how some people avoid the trap. They express their point of view, but avoid the acrimony. Are they more effective as a consequence? In other words, civility seems to be an essential characteristic of truthful speech. A clear sign of “fake news,” therefore would be the absence of civility. I know of no epistemological discussion of truth that insists on civility. Is anyone aware of one?’

    1. Thanks Tom. One can be civil and critical at the same time….Must be. One does not have to become a monster to critique and defeat a monster. Warmest regards, Jack

  4. Dear Jack,
    Firstly, welcome back! Your gentle thoughts and words are greatly needed. What a remarkable treasure you have in the picture of your grandparents. Our “covid days” have included delving into the mementos of our past that include pictures of our ancestors. There is something about confronting our mortality as we contemplate our origin and understand that our predecessors had moments of great risk, too. I agree with Mary that your words are far from small. You would be horrified at the events in Lansing yesterday as armed protesters, some wearing swastikas and/or confederate flags, invaded the capital building demanding “freedom” from rules protecting all of our citizens. There was only rage from this group and incivility ruled the day. How hard it is to have dialogue with those who only want their voices heard and who threaten those with whom they disagree. How does one have a meeting of the minds when one side has no desire to compromise or to even try to understand a position different from one’s own? This has been a tough week here in the Mitten as our fine governor tries to try to find a way to protect people from themselves. Sometimes neighbors aren’t very neighborly. Your “small” message is really quite huge!

    1. Frank, Good to hear from you as well. If some people continue to be socially destructive they must be (1) voted out of political office or (2) locked up behind bars. All of this can be done in a civil and very responsible way.

  5. Welcome back, Jack, and thank you for your lovely “story”. It took me out of the chaos, if only for for a few wonderful minutes.

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