What Will Sustain You When Everything Falls Apart?
Every sensible family prepares its children for crisis. Someday, parents and grandparents tell the young, you may find yourself in a strange place devoid of comfort. Someday, the setbacks may come with such severity that it will seem dark at noon. A treasured one will die. The one whom you love will not love you back, or they will betray you.
Perhaps you will do something so foolish you lose everything you held dear.
My friends raised in the church were told to cling tight to the Lord, to wait on an ever-loving Savior whose plans were loving (if generally inscrutable). My friends who grew up in religious Judaism got the same message about the Torah; if you live by its precepts in the community of your forebears, you will never face any crisis alone, nor will you be abandoned in your hour of grief.
In my family of atheists and agnostics, we had no God to whom to turn. We had a reverence for nature, for mountains and streams and rocks and pounding surf. But perhaps one might find oneself shut away in a hospital with nothing but a view of a parking lot, or in a jail with only pale green walls at which to gaze. No Hashem, no Jesus, no hills, and no horses.
What will you turn to then?
For Our Kind of People, you will turn to your manners. You will remember that you were put here to be kind, to be gracious, to be as cheerful and charming to your nurses and your jailers as you would be to your aunt’s best friend whom you see every Saturday at the club.
The world can take your money and your freedom, and sooner or later, will almost certainly take your health and your autonomy. All those manners you practiced as a child will be all that is left you: how to shake hands, and express enthusiasm even when bored to tears; knowing when to rise and when to sit; discerning how to draw out the shy and the frightened and set them at ease.
Since 2013, through hospitals and arrests and divorce and breakups and homelessness and firings and humiliations galore, what I’ve been left with that has sustained me are the manners with which I was raised. My white privilege and my smooth tongue mean that even down on my luck, folks are nicer to me than they would be to others. But manners and charm aren’t about getting a better deal from judges, or an extra helping of fruit cocktail on the psych ward, or a better assignment from my supervisor on the loading dock.
Manners aren’t a tool to get what I want: they are a tool to remind me of my own worth and purpose. Manners aren’t about getting anything. Manners are what have reminded me who I am. They are the tether that keep the balloon that is my life from drifting away.
The last time I was arrested, which is a story I am not going to share, I sat in a holding cell at the county courthouse with a dozen other men awaiting arraignment. I was the only white boy in the room.
I thought about my grandmother, my greatest teacher of manners and propriety. My grandmother would never have found herself in half the scrapes I ended up in, but I imagined her sitting next to me on the cement bench in that stifling, cramped cell with a single toilet. “Darling,” she said. “These men are tired and hot and scared. Remember who you are, and think if there’s anything you can do to help. You’ll feel ever so much better.”
I struck up a conversation, gave away half a sandwich, called an older arrestee “sir.” I made some men laugh. I did not feel better than they were. A gentleman who considers himself superior to others is neither. I did not pretend to be what I wasn’t, either; I didn’t hide the way I spoke, nor did I feign a false familiarity with the lives these men had lived. I assumed they were streetwise enough to see right through me. Good manners aren’t about disguising privilege, just as they aren’t about flaunting it. Over the course of six long hours, as men rotated in and out to make their pleas and bail arrangements, I forced myself out of my fear and introversion.
(An aside about that day in the holding cell. A young Korean lad sat cross-legged on the floor, a mournful expression on his face and a bandage on his hand. After two hours of nary a word, he spoke, his accent heavy, into a moment when all the rest of us were quiet: “My girlfriend says she loves me, but she also says she can love other men. Do you think that can work?”
There was a moment’s silence, and then glorious bedlam. Every man had a view, of course; we who have behaved badly are great givers of advice, though we generally avoid living by the precepts we preach. There was some derision, but far more compassion. One man in his 40s, with tattoos on every exposed inch of his skin including his lips, offered a passable sketch of the ethics and benefits of polyamory. Others worked to convince the questioner that he simply deserved better. The afternoon passed much more quickly as a result, and we all forgot our fearsome troubles for a little while, absorbed in the vital task of addressing the heartache of a young immigrant who worked as a line cook -- and loved she who would not be true. I played the part of panel commentator, trying to summarize the advice at the end.)
A great calm came over me even before our debate about polyamory. It wasn’t God, or at least I didn’t recognize it as such. It was that even in a moment of great stress and anxiety, I felt the deep peace of being exactly who it was that I was called to be. I had let down my family and friends so many times, betrayed so many promises, disappointed those who had placed their trust in me. And even at my most guilt-ridden, broke and broken, I still had something that even at my most irresponsible I could not lose.
I talk a lot about civility and manners, because for a tired old non-believer like me, they are my strength and comfort. They are the one thing that can’t be taken, spent, or squandered. They are my tools for navigating a world that has grown so much more confusing and frightening these past eight years.
Those of you who have your Jesus, your Twelve Steps, your Torah, your meditations, your crystals and your certainties, I honor you. I have something else, the one thing that has never left me.
Make no mistake, I do not think myself a perfect gentleman, just as my Christian friends do not think of themselves as walking perfectly in the footsteps of their Savior.
In my own flawed way, though, I am a student of grace with a small g, and I hope and expect I shall be until I go down into the earth.
Tom T. Hall has died. One of our greatest country songwriters, Hall wrote great classics for others (Harper Valley PTA for Jeanine Riley and Loretta Lynn; Little Bitty for Alan Jackson). He also wrote his own wonderful songs, and the one I’ve had on repeat since I heard the news is Second Handed Flowers, released in 1971. It’s a song about the way we take advantage of people who love us more than we love them:
She had been the girl that I had always gone to see
When someone that I cared for had been untrue to me
In this track, Hall has a devastating epiphany. He could craft a tune and make a hell of a good point, and his memory is a blessing.