I was painting the porch of my small apartment late one August afternoon when a band of boys playing cops and robbers among the trees of the neighborhood stopped to see what I was doing. The leader, a youngster who looked to be about ten years old, with curly, carrot-colored hair, stood, hands in pockets, surveying me. Bolder than the rest, he came closer.
“Ma’am,” he said politely, “did you know you have green paint on your face?”
Before I could reply, he quickly added, “But it looks good on you!” He flashed me a grin; then, as swiftly as they had appeared, he and his entire force ran off to restore law and order in the blackberry forest.
That young man will have an easy time in this world. I’m sure of it. His natural tact and goodwill are bound to win him many friends, open doors, and provide opportunities.
For some, like this friendly ten-year-old, graciousness seems to be inborn, instinctive. Most of us have to work at it. In the bustle of everyday life we tend to put courtesy aside. And that lack of courtesy can easily become a way of life that shows on our scowling faces, in our gestures of impatience, or in our constant flurry to get things done.
Graciousness. What is this quality that makes even the plainest woman beautiful? That transforms the most everyday person into a being of nobility?
HOW CAN I BE GRACIOUS WHEN I’M OVERLY TIRED AND BOGGED DOWN IN RESPONSIBILITIES THAT DRAIN AND DEPLETE MY STORE OF GOODWILL?
The gracious person is marked by the Christian qualities of kindness and courtesy. He or she is a delight to be with. He’s graceful with tact and delicacy. She puts us at ease. Graciousness involves giving of oneself. It’s reciprocal, giving and receiving with equal poise. It says thank you, replenishing the giver with compliments from the heart. It softens hurtful truth.
It accepts defeat without sourness; winning without haughtiness. Graciousness pays its own way in giving, and it does so anonymously, turning its gaze to avoid the eyes of the receiver.
Graciousness is my neighbor reaching over the fence to pull my weeds. It’s my son helping his great-grandmother out of the car and into her house.
Without graciousness we’re present in body only, offering no real substance of our spirit, even to those closest to us. How often have we stared blankly into our child’s eyes without hearing a word that was spoken?
The simple art of being gracious can rescue a marriage on the brink of divorce. A friend told me recently about the near-disaster of her marriage. She and her husband would arrive home from their jobs in the evening, each emotionally drained from the day’s activities. “We fell into a routine of grouching and picking at one another,” she said. When she realized what was happening, she vowed to change. “We wouldn’t have dreamed of treating a guest the way we were treating one another!” she admitted.
After prayer, it was easier to greet her husband at the door with a smile and a kiss. “The change in our lives has been miraculous,” she told me. “We’ve become like honeymooners again!”
Kindness, like the ripples from a pebble thrown into a still pond, creates a series of concentric rings, a series of happenings, that radiate out into the world, penetrating the hard shell of hate and indifference.
Graciousness demands of us what’s best in our human potential. It draws from us a vital investment and a fresh reinvestment every day. This is why the truly gracious person is never a bore and why we seek his or her presence.
When I think of graciousness, I have in mind a friend. He’s interested in others and lets it show. Through his conversation he relays compassion and genuine caring. Unlike him, many of us hold back, fearful of intimacy, of expressing our deepest feelings, afraid of getting involved, and reluctant to expose too much of ourselves.
My friend puts me at ease by creating an atmosphere of acceptance. In his presence I don’t feel pressed to be witty, well-read—or even cheerful if I don’t feel like it. He accepts my moods as he welcomes the variations in the weather. If I go to him with a problem, he’s supportive. Whenever I’m perplexed about something, he pulls a similar problem out of his stock of memories. He’s had troubles, too, or knows someone who’s suffered similarly. Always he encourages. I come away feeling that I’ve been heard and understood and counseled wisely. And best of all, this friend is my husband!
Another friend, who’s especially easy to be with, has the gift of humor—a capacity to banish hypocrisy with her gentle wit. Although she takes herself seriously, she’s never so stuffy that she can’t laugh at herself. With glee she dredges up her own frailties, parading them before me in order to make me feel better about my own. I relax in her presence because she’s so far from perfect—human and humane, warm and funny.
She’s agreeable, but she holds firm opinions. I’ve seen her pound her table with a clenched fist to emphasize a point she believes in, yet she has the knack of stating her feelings in such a way that she doesn’t become disagreeable.
Graciousness brings an inner harmony that’s translated to others through outward peace. Yet how is all this to be achieved in a frantically busy world, especially when so many of us have to cope with the multiple demands of job, spouse, and children? How can I be gracious when I’m overly tired and bogged down in responsibilities that drain and deplete my store of goodwill?
I don’t believe graciousness can be taught, but I believe it can be caught. If you have a friend who deftly incorporates the social graces in relationships with others, study his or her habits. Imitate and incorporate. Adapt and adopt in your own unique style those qualities that make your friend so easy to like.
Thoreau gave us at least part of the answer to the art of being gracious. “Simplify,” he advised. Cut out all but the most essential doings. Keep a calendar of events that bring you pleasure. If some activity is especially trying, avoid it if you possibly can. You can’t escape all responsibility or join a convent or a monastery, but you can strive for a balance between your obligations to yourself and others.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh points out in A Gift From the Sea that the most exhausting thing in life is insincerity. If graciousness is to be more than a show of superficial politeness, it must come from the heart.
Graciousness requires that we admit errors and rectify mistakes. Being gracious means having to say, “I’m sorry,” not once but time and time again. It demands that we hold no grudges but rather are quick to forgive.
Graciousness can be a characteristic of the rich and powerful or a quality of the poor. Fame, position, and wealth may be accidental, but the world’s true aristocracy is characterized by its spirit of graciousness. Graciousness is an accumulation of little kindnesses and concessions. A revival of the spirit of graciousness could have a truly revolutionary impact on our families and on our world, because graciousness is love in action.