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Good Manners

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching* is a book of ancient Chinese wisdom that I turn to often. Here is a quotation:

I have just three things to teach:

Simplicity, patience, compassion.

These three are your greatest treasures.

Contemplating these three concepts is a breath of fresh air in our present world situation. Let’s examine them more closely, looking at synonyms and antonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus.**

Simplicity: austerity, plainness, severity (unadorned, easy, plain, modest)

difficulty, pretense (unnatural)

Take your own line of work and think how this goal would affect it. The sign above my work table says “Can this piece be simpler than the last?”

Patience: forbearing, long-suffering (meek)

haste, itchiness

Does anyone teach this now? Our attention span has decreased in exact proportion to the speed of our electronics. Where is waiting for someone else to go first? Or not complaining about an invasion of your ‘rights’? Or even stopping to think before responding to - or in - anger?

Compassion: yearning, mercy, clemency, humanity, pity, grace

accusation, retaliation

We at least pay lip service to this idea. After all, it’s the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, share one another’s burdens and rewards. There’s a lovely old phrase about marriage “doubling our joys and halving our sorrows.”

What would our world be like if we tried to choose the simplest options? If we acted with restraint and good will? If we showed mercy and grace to ourselves and all others? For some time I have thought that only a world catastrophe might unite us as human beings, and jolt us out of our narrow views. The present world situation is exactly that shock. This is the moment to imagine and work toward a society that cares for all its members, curbs its wastefulness and walks in humility.

In a way, it comes down to old-fashioned good manners. That’s more than saying “Please” and “Thank you.” It means always thinking about the well-being of the person facing you. It’s the small things: the daily courtesy, the willingness to work and share, the quiet presence in the explosive situation. It’s the web of mutual support that we weave when we treat each other with respect -- at home and abroad.

Here is a closing thought from the same verse of the Tao:

Simple in actions and in thought,

you return to the source of being.

Patient with both friends and enemies,

you accord with the way things are.

Compassionate toward yourself,

you reconcile all beings in the world.

-- Alice Parker

*Lao-tsu: Tao te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell, New York, Harper & Row, 1988

** Roget’s Thesaurus, ed. Norman Lewis, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1959

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Wake up, America! We’re in the midst of not one but two epidemics. The second is an advanced case of irresponsible behavior in the matter of guns. The majority of thinking adults in the United States


You express it so beautifully. Thank you!


Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts. I hope you are safe. One of the many disappointments of the ending of rehearsals at Westfield State U. this semester (as a sabbatical fill-in) was not getting to performance of two of your wonderful pieces: "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye" and "Sing, Sing." At least I had begun to mine them again for new revelations of your wonderful settings. Be well. I will look forward to a visit, post-quarantine.

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