Courtesy: everyday martyrdom

Are you ready to get Aristotelian with me? Hee-Haw! Let’s see another way in which the exercise of virtue is the pursuit of happiness…

We are going to take a deeper look at one of the virtues on the list of many many many virtues. This one virtue, which, on its face, seems like something easy to understand, is devilishly difficult to teach to my children, and, as unbelievable as it often seems to me, is not natural to many adults.

This virtue is courtesy. The Collins Dictionary folks define courtesy as politeness, respect and consideration for others. This seems, obvious, doesn’t it?

As I mentioned yesterday, however, the word “Courtesy” in our daily life seems to have been reduced to the idea of something being offered without cost. Surely, the initial idea of a “Courtesy Airport Shuttle” was out of consideration of a need for a convenient means of transportation to and from the airport. But somehow, that word started being used to indicate that something was free. Or a “Courtesy Car” as one lent while a car was being serviced…it sure sounds better than calling that car a “loaner.”

I heard a definition of courtesy on a radio show about twenty years ago, which has stayed with me every single day since. It was such an eye opener to me, that I turned off the radio immediately after, repeating the sentence word for word while I drove down I-4 in Orlando until I got to work at Walt Disney World, where I could write it down.

Courtesy is a series of small sacrifices.

It is this definition right here that has forged my understanding of what it means to live virtuously with courtesy.

Courtesy is a really big deal

At the Walt Disney theme parks throughout the world, there are four keys that comprise the “Magical Guest Experience”: 1. Safety 2. Courtesy 3. Show 4. Effeciency.

My understanding of client service was forged at the hand of Mickey Mouse. I was young enough when I started working for the Mouse to adhere wholeheartedly and without reservation to every single one of those keys. Add to that the fact that I am a natural people pleaser and I love to “make things happen,” (aka “make magic”) this was literally the best place in the world for me to end up after I got my degree.

The training at Disney leaves to little to chance at the hand of uninformed employees, or “cast members”, and when those four keys were exposed during a 3-day long Disney brain-washing formality which I received before I was allowed to start working there, a fiesta known as “Traditions”, I genuinely took them to heart and believed that they were the keys to the kingdom. And not just the Magic Kingdom. I found that those four keys were genuinely helpful ideas throughout my life.

So when I heard someone on the radio define courtesy as a “series of small sacrifices,” I felt like they were speaking my language. This non-Disney person was speaking the language of excellent client service and that was, at the time (and still is, to a large extent) the language I speak most fluently.

Courtesy is a call to martyrdom

Martyrdom? Ooooh là! Slow down, there, Lily Fields. Aren’t you getting a little carried away?

I use big dramatic words, sometimes, but not without consideration. So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, okay?

Indeed, martyrdom is a very serious word and I don’t take it lightly. Martyrdom means being killed for religious or politically beliefs.

Can I tell you what my one, overarching, we-can-argue-about-the-technicalities-of-theology-but-don’t-debate-me-on-this religious belief is? I believe in LOVE.

If, as we have established, courtesy is a series of small sacrifices, then we need to be making those sacrifices for some reason, because if we are not doing it for a reason, then they are just empty, one-off actions. I believe that every inconvenience I incur, if I am doing it in service to another person, I am doing it as an act of love and out of a place of love.

This can be as simple as holding a door open or bringing extra snacks to the park to share with the other kids playing there. This means teaching my children to say “hello,” as a way to recognize the humanity of the person they encounter, and saying “thank you” to every single ride operator at a theme park.

These are tiny, tiny, tiny actions, but each one is a discipline. There is a risk associated with each one: we might be late and miss the bus home if we hold the door open for every single person leaving church on a Sunday morning. We might not have enough snacks for ourselves if we share with every other kid at the park. Someone might not say “hello” back, and we will be left holding the bag and feeling stupid. A ride operator might be surly and not even say “You’re welcome” and we will feel embarrassed.

Each one of those risks is a “little death.” Being late is a sacrifice. Being hungry is a sacrifice. Feeling stupid is a sacrifice. Feeling embarrassed is a sacrifice. These are little deaths, tiny little deaths that are real risks, which is why, very often, we choose not to do them.

But the reward!!! The reward of doing the right thing, the kind thing, the courteous thing, the thing that is an action of love towards both people we know and people we don’t know is intangible and ethereal and absolutely addictive.

Living a life a love, through courteous, in-the-moment actions, is by far the most satisfying way I know how to live.

Up next:

Tomorrow, we are going to start breaking down the virtue of courtesy into its orientations, flip-side, its facets and activity. We will look at what the absence of courtesy looks like, and I will hopefully inspire you to start looking for ways become a courtesy martyr every single day.

This article is part of my series called Philosopher Princess, in which I am trying to make the study and pursuit of virtue, that ancient rocky path to happiness, something alive and life-giving.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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