The Simple Act of Courtesy

“After you.”

“No, you first.”

“No, no, no…after you.”

“Please, I insist. After you.”

This was the discourse between two men at a gas station in Selma that I witnessed this past week. Wow, that was nice. Refreshing. I thought as I left the store.

Courtesy.

Is there any other virtue that, historically, the South has been more greatly known for? Southerners have always taken pride in being earmarked as hospitable, courteous, kind.

But recently, I have been taken aback at some of the rudeness shown to me, particularly at businesses and restaurants while I was trying to place an order or sell an ad for Black Belt Living. One thing that really bothers me is the lack of customer service that is shown at some fast-food restaurants. Often, when I approach the counter, there is no conciliatory “hello” or “can I take your order?” Just an averted, bothered stare that says to me, “I don’t really care what you want, let’s just get this over with.”

I know, I know. What else should I expect from a person that makes $8.25 an hour at Burger King? Not much, you say.

My answer: Courtesy.

Courtesy doesn’t cost anything. It’s not hard. It doesn’t’ require a great deal. Yet, why is it so difficult for some people who work with the general public to display an ounce of courtesy?

A few days ago, I went to a hardware store to try to sell an ad. I was “greeted” by a guy who worked at the front desk. I immediately sensed that he had no use for me as I approached the counter.

“Yep,” he said, busy. He didn’t look up. Look me in the eye. Care.

“Um, I’m Al Blanton and I publish this magazine. I would like to speak with the owner.”

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to see if they might be interested in purchasing an ad with our magazine.”

“She’s in the back. I doubt it.”

“Oh. Ok. Well can you get her?

No response as he sauntered to the back and said, “Hey, do you wanna buy an ad for Black Belt Living?”

“No,” a grizzled, faceless voice said from the back. I imagined her smoking a cigarette and watching Jerry Springer on an 8” television set.

“Didn’t think so,” he said.

He came back into the main part of the store and scoffed, “She’s not interested.”

“What’s her name?”

“Owner.”

“Gotcha. Thank you.”

I thought about exchanging further pleasantries, but I surmised that words might have turned into histrionics or possibly, fisticuffs. There was a lot of wood and hammers in that store, saws and such. Innocent bystanders.

This could get ugly. Let it go, I thought as I angrily stormed out of there.

There have been so many times in doing business that I have wanted to fire off and tell these people what I really thought about them, their attitude. What really bothers me the most are the people that act soulless, as if they couldn’t give a rip about you, your business, or your travails.

But I’m glad I chose silence instead. I’m glad I chose to be courteous, instead of letting anger get the best of me.

I haven’t always been so self-controlled. Especially in the car.

A few weeks ago, I was leaving a business and I saw a sticker on the back bumper of a car that beaconed: JESUS PAID IT ALL.

Boy, did that get my day going. I went into the bank and was humming and whistling that tune. “Do you know that one?” I asked one of the tellers.

“Which one?”

“Jesus Paid It All.”

“Oh yeah.”

As I was leaving, I furnished a short rendition for everyone in the bank…

Jesus Paid It All!

All to Him I owe.

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow!

By then, my day had picked up. I felt the Spirit, yessir. Beaming.

I got back in the car and I was whistlin’ Jesus. The sky was bluer than I’d ever seen. Birds chirping. Clouds dancing, soft.

I shut the radio off. I had a tune in my head to carry me.

I drove down the road a bit and was bobbing to the beautiful words. Suddenly, a car whizzed in front of me like it was on rails and swerved into the turn lane.

I took it personally.

Jesus Paid It All ceased.

Expletives commenced. Fists began to shake. Fingers yawed back and forth like pecks of a hummingbird. I went from angelic to demonic in the course of two seconds, as I roared at that driver.

But then, it was over.

There was no reason to pursue it. No reason to go chase him down. Egg his car. Roll his yard. Get toe-to-toe with him. Sideways.

I stopped for a moment and thought about why I get so angry in the car. Where was I going that was so important? Why did I need to get there so quickly? What happened to Jesus Paid It All? Why can’t I be better at being courteous on the road when people are not courteous to me?

And why, why do I struggle so much with road rage?

The Road can be the most paradoxical place in America. On the one hand, courtesy can be displayed like mannequins in store fronts. On the other, impoliteness. Insolence. Anger. Rage. Fire. Hate.

In the South, we are trained to be tough. On every Southern boy’s resume, you’ll look down on the bottom and see TOUGH printed in big, large letters.

Skills: Microsoft Word, Excel, LEFT HOOK.

Upon Request: HAYMAKER.

In the South, we have it ingrained in us not to take anything from anyone. To take on all comers. Never back down. It’s just the way we are, the way we were raised. I guess.

This week, we will celebrate the Easter holiday. We will learn about the toughest guy in the history of the world. And when we read the account of the Passion of the Christ, we are reminded of how he was shamed, scorned, spat-upon, whipped, beaten, flogged, chastised, questioned, reprimanded, cut, pierced, mocked, and humiliated on the Road. Many cut him off on his horrific walk to Golgotha.

Did he take it personally?

I don’t know.

Did angry words fly from his mouth?

Absolutely not.

Did he fight back?

No.

At any point on that road, he could have stopped. He could have said, “I’m dying for these people?” But he kept on, and he kept silent. He kept driving with those logs hitched to his back. His blood was spilling all over the Road. The climb was immense. Trying. Although the journey was hard, he never lost sight of his destination, for there was purpose on that Road.

When I think about my life, I often think about the wide sea between how I act and how Jesus acted to those around him. I think about the dichotomy of courtesy and conflict that has marked the different occasions of my life. I think about the many times I have displayed Southern hospitality, and the many times I have displayed searing hate.

And, as a whole, I do believe that Southern hospitality has a direct correlation to our Christian faith. My faith. I hope we don’t lose that sense of kindness in an increasingly impatient and manic world.

I hope I don’t.

The challenge for me is not to be courteous to those who are courteous to me. The challenge is for me to be nice when others have slapped me in the face, questioned me, criticized me, enraged me.

As I writer, sometimes I have to deal with this. It’s never pleasant. I have to learn to turn the other cheek.

Where I come from, this has never been the sexy thing to do (and where I come from, they don’t make ‘em any tougher). But it’s the right thing to do. Courtesy and kindness is always right, always contagious.

It’s amazing how the most important things in life do not come at any cost. Someone else showed us that.

Someone else paid it all.

Thankfully, Jesus set for us an example on how to treat others. And thankfully, He held the door of salvation open for us so that we may walk through it.

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