At first, I tried to mask a giggle when my nieces and nephews accompanied any request with the always-paired words, “Please and Thank you.” As in “Aunt Annette, may I have another piece of cake, please and thank you.” Then I learned about magic.
It wasn’t just that they were exercising a child’s version of “hedging their bets.” Their mothers and fathers had endowed them with a two-word arsenal to arm them for life in a much wider world than the embrace of a loving family.
The “children” were introduced to a pair of “Magic Words” named Please and Thank you. They were encouraged to see and hear them as having the power to open doors (and cookie jars). I don’t suppose they were introduced as having the power to disarm. But that could not have been far from their caring parents’ motivation.
They knew their children would be living in a world of “others” and that a demonstration of mutual dependence was another name for courtesy. Use of the “magic words” would signal to new acquaintances they would meet in locations from the city bus to the supermarket to the parking garage, or the gym. There and elsewhere, the people they would meet would recognize that they were respected both for the distance between them and the bond. The magic words, applied thoughtfully and sincerely, would for a lifetime serve as signals that there was a platform of civility and shared humanity that could provide the storied “level playing field.” And, not incidentally, that it was equally available across a spectrum of all the similarities and all the differences that define life in the miraculous mosaic that is our constitutional democracy defined, early on as having been built on a belief that “all men are created equal.”
How grateful we can be that a Declaration and Constitution framed by brave but limited Founders gave us documents that can evolve with the growth of the citizens and their awakening awareness. They can expand without snapping. The passionate defenders of freedom as a Divine endowment would come to a hard and painfully won realization that this is a right not to be limited or negotiated for reasons of profit and political power.
The original champions of freedom of the press left behind tools capable of adapting to the digital era. And of course, the key conviction that the daughters of the brilliant and articulate Abigail Adams deserved the vote and the gradual shattering of glass ceilings.
Which brings us to “I apologize.” Only “please and thank you” people are brave enough to apologize. Because they have been taught from the outset that we humans stand eye to eye, not overlord to underling. It is a matter of recognizing what we are individually and that neither of us has a right to declare primacy over the other. Whether the terrain is a shared workplace or a social setting or a playing field, all the parties to making that terrain work deserve to expect that their mutual claim to the rights to the “level playing field” are equally deserving of respect.
That is not to say the hours, days, generations of coming to a richer humanity will not be tested or even abused. I keep hearing the echo of FDR who took ownership of some of his own limitations in declaring, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear is a murderous enemy of honesty and of repentance. Not for nothing did my own Church shift its emphasis in describing a sacrament from “Confession” to “Reconciliation.” It recognizes that confession is best seen as a beginning of the hard work of healing a damaging rift. The great gift of being forgiven is that it opens a door to being reconciled with the individual recognized as having been wronged. Until that happens and is recognized, a cap is put on the possibility of growth and progress.
The current nightmare of seismic change of awareness in the relationships of the sexes took a turn in the past week. A highly visible man, confronted with evidence of breaching the rules of engagement that form the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable, looked at the extremely unpleasant evidence and summoned up the courage to acknowledge reality, take responsibility for distorting it and apologize.
That does not remove the pain, the embarrassment, the total unacceptability of his decisions and their impact on a fellow human occupying the same level playing field. But at least it could be one baby step towards something resembling reconciliation and commitment to seek the high ground where a level playing field becomes a springboard to a new day.
As we long for that hope to be realized, we would be well advised to remember to say: May we begin the pilgrimage to better times? And of course, to add, “Please and thank you!”