I've graded so many college papers that unfortunately started with a definition from the Oxford dictionary.
It's not my favorite way for a student to start a paper. I exclusively teach psychology classes and there are precious few reasons for a dictionary definition to be the opener when the focus is not on the semantics of a thing. Furthermore, I'd rather see a student draw from theory or research rather than a dictionary when exploring a psychological concept.
Still, I'm realizing with this "psychology of..." blog series that there are basic Christian concepts many of us (myself included) probably don't really understand. And, I suspect that we not only don't understand these concepts Biblically and theologically but practically.
So, let's start with the practical, and the Oxford dictionary!
Being gracious, by definition, means to be "courteous, kind, and pleasant." Oxford also indicates that the other primary usage of graciousness is in the Christian sense of showing divine grace.
Merriam-Webster gives a different vibe, one of someone with high and noble breeding being marked by kindness, courtesy, charm, good taste, and generosity of spirit.
All good things.
I'm starting to feel like we're living what it might have felt like when the French Revolution started, or the rise of Nazi Germany (pick your left or right uprising). As someone with a psychology-lens and who looooves literature, I was always super focused on how the common people, in both historical and fictional accounts of these times, behaved.
A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel gave me the flavor of a people who, in throwing off nobility during the French Revolution, threw grace out as well. Baroness Orczy, author of the latter book, did a particularly good job, I think, of showing how even women who were not involved in the violence nonetheless exemplified a sort of verbal violence in their efforts to show that they bowed to no person, not even one another. Showing the most basic kindnesses and hospitality was seen as noblesse oblige. Graciousness was lost so that the people would rise. And yet, when they rose, they found it necessary to maintain constant vigilance against one another. One never knew if the guillotine would come for you, should you seem to be too high and mighty.
There are many things going on today that have my hackles raised, but the loss of basic courtesy is one that many have noted for years, and this was accelerated during the pandemic. Maybe people lost the ability to maintain social graces due to isolation and the self-focus that can come from grappling with one's own issues for too long. And perhaps this coincided with worldwide and cultural changes that cause mass movements of demonization of others, and the rise of hateful vitriol, including racist and misogynist language. If it's us versus them, so many are choosing "us," and to hell with "them."
And by that I mean the interesting observation that while some who believe in a literal hell are wishing that literal hell upon their enemies, some who don't believe in a literal hell are likewise (and somewhat illogically) wishing it upon their foes!
What's scary is that what we say with our mouth, sometimes we follow with our behavior, and we are seeing that played out over and over again.
We Gen Xers know it to be a lie now (I hope) that sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.
Our words can be gracious and life-giving or vicious weapons.
I am not always gracious, but I am married to someone who almost always is. I've learned from him that it is best to believe the best of others and to not dwell on minor imperfections. To let it roll over you and focus on other things.
But, man, that's hard, especially for those of us with a very analytical frame of mind.
If it seems a little curmudgeonly for me to be saying all this, please realize that I am NOT saying, "Kids these days--they are so disrespectful." No, actually, I think it's my generation and those slightly older and slightly younger who are the worst offenders. Kids at least have an excuse of it being near-universal for all of history to have to learn and be taught how to be civil, how to be human beings. How to be a person, as I phrase it to my 13-year-old son. What's our excuse, for unlearning civility and graciousness?
Let's go back to that Oxford dictionary definition: Courteous, kind, and pleasant.
This one is hard because I realize that many oppressed individuals feel that they have to "take back" what's theirs. Poor white people in Appalachia feel this way. Women who are told their whole lives to just be "nice" feel this way. Immigrant communities just trying to make a living feel this way. And so, we may lose our graciousness in an effort to be practical, to get ahead. We realize that no one is looking out for us, so we have to take it all back ourselves.
Our very selves get lost in the process--the beauty of a loving, gracious, vibrant community, or a caring, others-focused person.
In an effort to take back what's ours and to demand respect from everyone, we sacrifice being a person who is worthy of respect, even if no one gives it. The ability to stand with our head tall not because we are receiving the respect of others...but because we carry it inside of ourselves, no matter what.
Christians in particular should not need to demand respect, to wrest it from others. And we don't need to be overly subservient either--this is a twisting of the Gospel. In this, I see the Apostle Paul and Jesus as fascinating models. Meek and mild and humble, and yet pretty dang strong when facing evil authorities. Jesus ends up getting slapped on the face after confronting the high priest at his trial (who, by the way, was engaging in illegal activities to oversee that kangaroo court), and Paul gives this semi-sarcastic response after being called out for calling the high priest a white-washed wall: "Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people" (Acts 23:5). These episodes don't even come close to the things that John the Baptist or Jesus himself said earlier to evil and corrupt religious leaders. We are not called to be milquetoast-y!
And yet, it is so hard to be properly assertive, to matter-of-factly state what is right and not be overly focused on our own wants and needs. Can we advocate for what is good and right rather than what is selfish?
My favorite apostle, John, describes (twice in John 1) how Christ models this for us: Grace and Truth. For example,
The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ. (John 1: 17)
So much discernment is needed to know how to do one and the other, and how to integrate both.
So, grace is not a condescending, "Oh bless his heart," jab, as we hide our actual thoughts and feelings. And it isn't a rip-roaring railing against someone when it's actually all about us and fighting our way to the forefront.
We talk of speaking the truth in love, but I don't know that we've clearly mapped out what that looks like. You know it when you see it, and it's such a rare thing to see, isn't it?
I found myself praying this week for the help to give and show grace as I have been shown grace. I had in mind the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, who is forgiven a huge debt by his master yet refuses to forgive a small debt to another servant and treats him extremely harshly. This is the parable for us all. I've written before how we so easily fall into Fundamental Attribution Error; we overemphasize personal qualities and downplay situational factors when judging the behavior of others...and we do the opposite for ourselves.
For example, if we get angry and blow up at someone, we rationalize and say that we had a stressful day, or low blood sugar, or were going through a rough time. But if someone else does it, we say that they are a hostile and angry person.
"Do unto others" is a broad directive that should touch both thoughts and behavior, because they are intertwined. How we think about others is tied to how we treat them...or don't treat them. Avoidance, ghosting, etc. are all passive-aggressive ways to be ungracious to someone, and these are not the ways that we ourselves would want to be treated.
The Psychology of Religion as a subfield doesn't have a lot of research on grace, sadly. I'll try to explore this a little more later. But Positive Psychology has a lot of focus on Gratitude. Just like all negative thoughts and behaviors have some underlying common themes and connectors (we talk of gateway drugs, but there are gateway behaviors that lead to other serious acting-out behaviors, in adolescent research), I wonder whether it's the same for positive ones. If we focus during this period of thanksgiving a little more on Gratitude and we also add to it Graciousness.
How countercultural to start a movement ("and let it begin with me," as the old song goes) where we respond to gracelessness with assertive grace, to selfish hedonism with gratitude for the smallest of things. Would this not make us beautiful people, no matter what was happening around us?