Courtesy: doing what can be done

The Orientation of Courtesy

The Orientation Facet (towards self or towards others) of courtesy is always going to be others-oriented. Our discussions of some virtues will be solely Self-Oriented. Courtesy, however, is very much about others.

Those of us who struggle with interpersonal relationships tend to be on a spectrum between absolute troglodytes or people pleasing co-dependent ingratiators. People who have few relational problems will fall somewhere in the middle betwixt the two. But the extremes, both people pleasers and boorish troglodytes, have unhealthy relationships, particularly with the needs and wants of others. We either ignore the fact that others may have needs and wants at all, or we sense that the fulfillment of others’ needs and wants depends solely on us. Neither is healthy.

Courtesy is a virtue that takes into account the needs and wants of others, and is the dynamite that can help the troglodyte open to the world, and the buffer that can keep the people-pleaser from taking on the cares of the world. Courtesy can help us find the balance.

Courtesy and the people pleaser

Yesterday, I defined courtesy as a series of small sacrifices, out of politeness, respect and consideration for others.

Excuse me for narrowcasting, but I believe that someone, at some point, will find this article and know that I was writing it for them. If you are that person: I have been waiting for you.

Here’s what we have in common: We want to be happy. We want to enjoy life. We want to do the right thing. We want to be loving, happy people. Our Achilles heel is that we struggle in relationships with other people. We carefully walk a tightrope between being happy and doing the right thing and tend to lose our balance when faced with the wants and needs of other people.

What I want to suggest is this: Courtesy is the secret key to keeping your balance in relationships with others.

What? That’s right. Yesterday, I said that courtesy is everyday martyrdom. Courtesy, the act of making little sacrifices means experiencing little deaths everyday. It means going out of our way to be helpful when it is within our power to do so. It means being generous when it is within our power to be so. It means running the risk of being late if we can be useful. It means actively seeking out, in every circumstance doable ways to put our theoretical love of our neighbor into action.

Sometimes, to love our neighbor with our actions is going to be inconvenient. It is going to be messy. It is going to be hard. Keeping your balance, in your everyday life, means that you are only going to do the things that you can do. Remember what the King said to the Little Prince?

“One must demand from each and everyone what he is capable of,” said the king. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”

The King
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

“Losing your balance” in relationships is akin to the “revolution” the King speaks of. Things get uncomfortable in your relationships because you are demanding (or allowing others to demand of you) what you are not capable of or things that are not reasonable.

What we can and cannot do

I am not saying that in order to keep your balance you must give away money you do not have or starve yourselves to feed others or fix a flat tire if you don’t know how. I am saying that each one of us is equipped with the wisdom to know what good we can do. That wisdom, however, has, for many of us, gotten out of tune with reality over the years. We have allowed our emotions to blind us to what is truly within our power.

Only that good we can do should be what we require of ourselves every. single. day.

You are not to wrack your brain looking for things you can do. You are not to agonize over what you cannot do. You are simply to do the next right thing when the opportunity arises. That next right thing is the thing we can do, not the pipedream, not the grandiose gesture. It’s holding open a door. It’s letting someone go ahead of you in the grocery line. It’s letting a car merge into your lane. It’s just looking someone in the eye while saying “please” and “thank you”.

Our balance gets out of whack when you and I “demand from ourselves” what you and I are not capable of. We cannot take away someone’s pain. We cannot control someone’s reactions. We cannot make everything better.

Intentionally practicing courtesy each and every day deepens the grooves that help us understand what we are capable of and sharpens our wisdom to know what we are not capable of. In this, we stop living by the emotions of guilt and pity and sadness and start living by love.

The objection

When, for most of your life, you have been tying yourself in knots to fulfill the needs of others in ways that you are not capable, you have trained yourself to believe that this is showing love. Because you are trying to do things you can’t do, you end up frustrated and exhausted and this sets you on that pendulum towards being a troglodyte. The vast swings between trying to do things you can’t do and wanting to crawl in a cave and disappear is what makes your relationships so difficult.

I am not saying you need to “stop loving people.” I am saying that the way you have been showing it is harming you, and not doing the good you think it should be.

Broaden the range people you are serving by doing intentionally doing smaller things more often. In this you will be practicing love in a healthier way. The satisfaction of being courteous is, like virtue more broadly, its own reward.

Up next

Tomorrow will be fun: it is supervillain day. We will look at the Flipside of courtesy (what courtesy without wisdom looks like) and what the absence of courtesy looks like. You know it when you see it. But do you know when you are guilty of it?

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.

3 thoughts on “Courtesy: doing what can be done

  1. I do not drive and rely on others to transport me to wherever I need to go. It is not a sacrifice, but I term a common courtesy to be ready and waiting for my driver.
    Does this fit you definition?


    1. That is exactly it! Being ready is what *you* can do. And honestly, sometimes being on time feels like a little bit of a sacrifice when you’ve got a bunch of plates spinning, doesn’t it? Keep it up, Courtesy Superhero!


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