I woke up Monday morning with mockery of Ottawa habits in mind. I ended the day in an attitude of quiet respect, sensing something meaningful in the shift.
It began Sunday night as I sat in a local bar with some neighbors watching my New England Patriots – yes, smarty pants, they’re mine; I own them emotionally; billionaire Robert Kraft is just their financial figurehead – win the greatest football game ever played.
At a critical moment during overtime, gravity erupted from nowhere and propelled my hands downward to the tabletop hard enough to make the beer glasses jump. Simultaneously, a mystical oral door opened and my interior cry of a word that sounds exactly like “luck” – yet means the opposite - flew from my lips. It caromed like a wounded crow off all four corners and the ceiling of the bar. As I say, it was a critical moment.
“Whoa,” one of my neighbours said very civil servantly. “Calm down.”
Calm down? On the razor’s edge of victory in the greatest football game ever played by the greatest football franchise ever created led by the greatest quarterback and greatest coach in the history of, well, everything since the Big Bang? Calm down?
As I asked a friend smirkily afterward, exactly what value do Ottawa folk attach to being calm anyway?
I sniggered variations on the theme throughout the day, mentally mock-judging people against my handy-dandy scale of soporific to snoring. And then a minor amazing, and awakening thing happened. Someone held a door open for me on my way home after work. I realized, ruminating on it, that the phrase “held the door” doesn’t really do justice to the act.
There is a widespread Ottawa habit, I’ve noticed, of breaking stride as you approach public doorways, peeping over your shoulder to see if anyone is behind you, and then reaching back, if necessary, to make sure the door doesn’t drop on them. Not everyone does it, of course. But when they don’t, it’s a discernible departure from the norm. What the norm exemplifies is a small automatic act of fundamental civic decency.
Yes, it’s good manners. But it goes beyond them.
Manners are abstractions made concrete in contexts. We take our hats off in a house of worship – or don’t – to show our awareness of where we are, and as a gesture of respect to the enduring institution itself. But when we take a hat off in a theatre to avoid blocking the view of someone behind us, it’s a very different kind of act. It’s an act directed toward the good of the individual, the person, the fellow human being. It signals that the individual matters to us, as a matter of civic decency, whether or not we will ever see that person in our lives again.
Are such acts of civic decency (door holding is one example among thousands) the necessary and sufficient means to trump – yes, ha-ha – political corruption, religious violence, the cultural absurdity of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl half-time performance? On the one hand, by no means. On the other, in the aggregate, they’re all we have.
We live in a time whose greatest violence, at least spiritually and psychologically, is the way the superlative curb stomps the diminutive. Nothing is something unless it’s everything, however ephemeral. Everything is the great sweep of history, the increasingly unimaginably horrific, the greatest of greatness that will stand the test of time until the next Big Bang comes along. (Wait 10 minutes and check your Twitter feed in case you’ve missed it.)
While some are dying by overdosing on fentanyl, the rest of us risk atrophying from FOMO – fear of missing out. What we are missing we cannot say, and even if we could, probably wouldn’t. It wouldn’t matter. Whatever it “is” will instantaneously become something that “was”, and on we’ll frantically go.
In such a world, at such a time, in the immortal words of the great under-rated singer Rickie Lee Jones’ song Gravity, small things float to the top.
The gesture that costs nothing more than a down payment on decency becomes noteworthy precisely because it asks for no return, does not even ask for thanks, blows no trumpet for itself.
It does something else. If we are paying attention, it lets us see what a scarcely perceptible, almost molecular, act of civic decency looks like in motion, active upon ourselves. Even more, it lets us see another human being caught unawares at a moment of habitually doing a good thing.
The mutual benefits could bring a shift of infinite value for a society in critical need of calming down long enough to recognize what truly matters.