Working at a school for kids who have special needs, I spend a lot of my time with children who tend to be pitied for their challenges. Admittedly, they learn slowly, they struggle with the most basic concepts and tasks, and they are sometimes completely lost when it comes to socially acceptable behavior. And yet, among them are some of the most loving and truly compassionate souls that I have ever had the privilege of interacting with.
A few months ago, and about a week into my new job, the school held a Valentine’s Day dance for the students. As a one-on-one aide, I went with my student- who was also brand new to the school- and nervously tried to keep track of him as he happily ran around and between the crowd of people. Without any warning, his smile faltered and he ran to the corner of the gym where he flopped on a folded up blue mat with his face in his hands. Almost before I had time to react, he was surrounded by four other kids, all crouching next to him, murmuring “You’re okay,” and “Are you sad? Why are you sad?” and patting him on the back. And they stayed with him until, a minute or two later, he jumped back up and started running around again.
It was humbling and charming to watch these kids who, for all their challenges, were so beautifully sensitive to the emotions of others. I had been paying close attention to this boy because it was my job, but these kids were at the dance to be entertained. There was music blasting and everyone was dancing and playing games, and even in the midst of all the chaos and fun, they were aware, within seconds, that someone was upset. And even though they didn’t know this boy at all, they didn’t think twice about doing anything they could to make him feel better.
Paying attention to the people around me does not come easily to me. I tend to focus on one thing, and unfortunately the one thing is usually how I am feeling or what I want at the moment- a preoccupation which is both rude and unsatisfying.
It takes a deliberate decision for me to choose not to think about myself. It means switching from my natural focus on how someone can help me, validate me, flatter me, inform me, or entertain me, to thinking about how can I help them, encourage them, or respect them.
So this is where some civility training comes in. First I have to remind myself why I should pay attention, because it’s far too easy to slip back into my own world surrounded by my own concerns if I don’t really believe that people are worth paying attention to.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
When we notice those around us we are acknowledging their worth. We are not giving them their worth- they are already infinitely important as one created and loved by our Creator- but we are reminding both ourselves and them that they are significant. That they have a soul, a story, and a personality that is unique in the universe. As P.M. Forni says in Choosing Civility, with something as simple as a smile and a “Good Morning,” we say to that person, “You exist, and that matters to me.”
Acknowledging someone’s existence may seem like a pretty small action, but just think for a moment about how you feel when someone pointedly ignores you. You feel less significant, don’t you? You feel almost less human when someone looks past you as if you didn’t exist. You haven’t changed, you haven’t really lost value, but it feels as if you have.
So the first part of paying attention is just seeing the people around you as people. Say hello to the cashier, people watch, smile at strangers, say good morning to coworkers. Notice when people do things that are kind, or clever, or beautiful, or wise. Notice the way people act when they have something they want to talk about, or when they have something they don’t want to talk about. But most of all, just practice noticing. Practice forgetting what you want and just being present for the people you are with. Don’t always default to hiding behind your phone. It may feel awkward at times, but you don’t know who might need a reminder that their existence in this world means something.