Does it matter how we live and how we treat one another? Have we lost our graciousness? Has our culture coarsened beyond repair?
Who better to get a perspective on this societal question than from a philosophy professor who exemplifies a gracious approach toward life?
Albert (Randy) Spencer, a senior philosophy professor at Portland State University, says he sees evidence of basic relationships damaged by a polarized society with social media magnifying the worst among us. He also sees a little decline in basic social skills among the younger population.
“If graciousness is a virtue then it has always been around,” he says.
But, he wonders, were people noticeably politer or has social media revealed our true nature? Has social stratification decreased neighborliness and community?
“In the past we were stuck with each other but now the structure of the world has changed and there are too many choices for our attention and time,” Spencer says.
In today’s world, “you can get through the day without talking to anyone, not be around anyone you don’t want to be, ignore emails you don’t want and only check with people who share your same interests,” he says. You can get in your car alone, commute to your job, teach online and have no face-to-face interaction.
So, what are a few characteristics of graciousness?
Being gracious is someone who is humble and desires to praise others.
Someone who is gracious would never seek out to embarrass another person deliberately.
A gracious individual is quick to say ‘thank you’ for even the smallest gesture.
Listening to the other person more than talking about yourself is a gracious characteristic.
Not “one upping” someone or being spiteful is considered being gracious.
A gracious person makes a point of paying attention to others.
Consciously being mindful to say what is appropriate is a gracious choice.
A gracious person seeks out ways to make others feel comfortable and appreciated.
Being gracious means knowing you are not indispensable and respects everyone’s contribution.
It is a great temptation to fall in to. Even at home, family members can be on separate screens until it’s time to go to bed.
Once in bed, a person on one side can sleep on a hard mattress and the other sleeps on a soft one. “You don’t have to accommodate other people,” Spencer says. “It’s tempting and reinforces social anxieties, clinical or nature.”
How do we define graciousness?
Spencer sees it in the same context as gratitude — as a thank you, a sense of appreciation of other people. When we think of grace, we think of “graceful as a dancer,” an aesthetic beauty, a serene nature, a certain elegance and ease.
He sees graciousness as setting other people at ease, at having no desire to offend, of pure intentions, and even a sense of style, though it may be superficial.
These days he is seeing grace more in a spiritual sense, such as the Hindu notion of karma, of everything having a reason, of moments of serendipity, a sense of being in the right place at the right time.
He cites an example of grace when he reconnected with a best friend he grew up with in his small Appalachian town of 5,000. This friend had many personal setbacks and Spencer happened to call on the very day his friend’s wife asked for a divorce. His friend had been in recovery and was frightened of losing his sobriety because of this.
“I was feeling guilty about not staying in touch and now I had called on such an important day,” Spencer says “It was like it was supposed to happen. I was able to offer support and hope.”
When Spencer’s daughter was about 3 to 4 years old, they shopped together to find essential items to package for the homeless. He wanted to teach his daughter that how she responded to a person in need defined who she is as a person.
“I didn’t want her to harden her heart when she sees someone who needs help, to support her turning inward instead of turning away,” Spencer says. “It’s not just about the homeless, it’s about mental health, outrage, powerlessness and I wanted her to never forget when it’s OK to be angry.”
He tries to maintain a sense of equanimity. “It is fun to be outraged,” he says, “it’s a seductive drug. When it comes to social justice problems, the circumstances are so big that you wonder if they can ever be fixed. You have to learn how not to despair.”
He’s aware he doesn’t suffer from Jim Crow, and has not been displaced from his land. “I do suffer from awareness of what my ancestors did,” he says.
However, he warns against digging the grave deeper. Rather he sees graciousness as not perpetuating behaviors. “But I also have to accept my limits in this area,” Spencer says.
A gracious approach to life is not just a person’s nature but also the influences of others during their younger years. Spencer has vivid memories of his mentors while he was growing up.
One was a pediatrician, Kamaljeet Vidwan, a Sikh who wore a turban while practicing medicine in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains.
“He was gracious, always happy, always positive, immaculate, impeccable and chose to be an ambassador of his faith by wearing his spiritual uniform,” Spencer says. “He was very generous to other people. He always made me feel healed. I have never trusted a doctor more. I knew if I got sick, I would get better. He was an excellent example.”
Spencer is aware that his responsibility as a father, husband and teacher is to be a role model, especially when volunteering at his daughter’s ballet dance studio, as an art helper at her grade school and as director of her school talent show.
He is passionate about the arts and laments that schools and society remainder them.
“We need more imagination, beauty, and passion in life,” he says. “I have been with the same partner, my wife Tina, for 21 years. We were high school sweethearts and while it requires great patience to endure the missteps and training from youth to adulthood, we are our most important teachers and support.”
Spencer described himself as a nurturer. “It’s my disposition,” he says. “I am forgiving. I let students experiment, follow their interests, and give them second and third chances.”
He desires to learn new things from other people’s experiences, including those very different than he and with whom he disagrees.
A more gracious culture, he believes, would be people comfortable with who they are, a scaling down of superficiality and ambition, and of acquiring goods, wealth and power.
“I believe we have to be honest about our history and the myth of exceptionalism,” Spencer says. “It can inspire people, but it is also destructive.”
Spencer considers his coal miner grandfather his most important role model and father figure. “He saw the best in me and told me I could do good things,” he says. “He fueled my intellectual interests. He was not a well-educated man but very much self-studied. He said if a person applies themselves they don’t need formal credentials.”
Another example is his mother. “She was a single mom and a social worker who balanced work and life,” Spencer says. “She kept my sister and me safe and protected. She had an amazing work ethic. I regret I overlooked how amazing she was because she was so unassuming.”
In thinking about her, he says, “You never know what your impact will be. There is something nice about that.”