A number of years ago, as I was leaving a department store, I noticed an older African-American woman carrying a shopping bag about 20 feet behind me. She was far enough back that it would not have been impolite to just walk out into the parking lot and let the door close, but I decided to wait and hold the door for her. I don’t know her personal history, but based on the expression on her face I could guess that having a white male hold the door for her was not something to which she was accustomed. There was an element of surprise in her kind face and in her smile there was a sense of true appreciation for this very small but significant act of courtesy.
Holding the door did not make up for the years of prejudice or abuse that she may have experienced nor did it mean that she would cease to be ill-treated by others. It was just a moment when two people made the world a slightly better place. Since then I have held the door open for others, some just as appreciative and some whose response was one of entitlement, as if it was my job to have held the door. Still others have held the door for me and I’ve always done my best to look them in the eye and thank them for their kindness.
There are many other opportunities for small courtesies every day; slowing down to allow a fellow driver to merge in front of us, the person with one item to go ahead in line at the market checkout, picking up a dropped glove and returning it the owner are only a few.
Each one of these small courtesies makes up a broader spectrum of the respect and humanity that we as human beings not only should be offering as often as we can, but an essential element of the type a world where we like to live. This may be a large leap, but imagine if, instead of holding open a door to a department store, Hamas held open the door to the acceptance of the state of Israel or that the settlers in the West Bank, offered, without coercion, to give the land to the Palestinians as a courtesy towards peace. What if the Chinese government said to the people of Tibet, as a courtesy, it’s okay not to be a part of China, but let’s be good neighbors instead.
To me, there is little difference between the driver on the highway who cuts me off to demonstrate a sense of power and the government, religious group or corporation that suppresses people for no other reason than to show them who is stronger.
These may be overly simplistic views of complex social and political issues, but on the other hand, perhaps not. I firmly believe that a little courtesy and mutual respect between individuals and between nations could go a long way towards a better world.