Small Acts of Civility

signature-machineEarlier in the week, I wrote about choosing a thank you card for my literary idol, Margaret Atwood. In the essay, I gushed about Atwood and the impact her work has had on me. After posting the essay, I wrote her a short, decorous note expressing thanks for the permission to use four lines of her poetry as the epigraph in my novel.

Will my card ever reach the actual hands of Atwood? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter to me. I wrote the essay and sent the card because those small acts of conveying gratitude were important to me.

In third grade I sent the POTUS a letter. I have no idea what I wrote, but after only a few weeks, I received a signed note and a photo of then-President Ronald Reagan riding his jet black horse. I was thrilled. I kept the president’s note and picture in a special box and showed them to anyone who would look. My politics may have shifted since third grade, but somewhere in the kept treasures from my youth, I still have that glorious picture and letter.

Two decades later, I began working in Washington State in the governor’s budget office. There, I learned a “correspondence office” was where state employees spent their days responding to the governor’s mail. I also learned there was such a thing as a “signature machine.”

The realization that elected officials didn’t personally respond to their mail, though kind of obvious, disappointed me. As a third-grader, I’d happily embraced the mythology that the president himself penned my letter. The idea that he’d sat down at his presidential desk, carefully read my words, and typed me a response on his whirring presidential typewriter made me feel like even though I was just a kid, I could influence the president.

The ugly business of surrogate letter writers and signing machines—realities for most public figures—could easily have caused me to feel disillusioned. To wonder, do letters from regular shmos to important muckety-mucks even matter? But the mere fact that the system isn’t as straightforward or simple as my child mind once thought, is no reason to hate or distrust it.

As an adult, I can accept that as a practical matter, even state governors can’t respond personally to the piles of mail they receive. Though only a small number of individual letters received by the governor’s office were regularly elevated to the actual hands of the governor, the issues raised in those letters were tracked, reported, and considered.

Those constituent letters had influence, especially collectively, and a response from the correspondence office still legitimately represented the governor. In addition, I would contend that the very act of writing—a discipline that typically yields a more organized and reasoned clarity of thought—had value for the senders.

I still believe that writing letters makes a difference—just in a slightly more complex way.

Similar to a government official, Margaret Atwood necessarily employs people to manage her business and respond to correspondence. Did she personally send the email granting me permission to use her work for my epigraph? No. But that neither diminishes the value of the permission, nor does it diminish the value of my responses to her, even if via proxies.

When I received the Atwood permission email, I was every bit as thrilled as I was in third grade to open that letter from the president. I responded to the email by writing an essay and thank you card because those small acts were within my control. They say something about who I am and the person I’m striving to be. Moreover, I believe respectful expressions like these matter.

Why am I explaining this? Because the world can be a jaded place. Because when we stop believing in good, we let bad win.

During this election season in particular, people have expressed disillusion. Some say they no longer believe in our officials, our governments, the electoral process, or in each other. Terrible words have been said by and about the presidential candidates. Friendships have ended. The level of negativity in the air is palpable.

I’m not arguing against being passionate about politics, nor am I downplaying the importance of the election or the serious words and actions that have caused such national fervor. Also, friendships naturally come and go, and sometimes the healthiest thing is to end one.

But let’s not forget that WE—collectively and individually—are this country. All of us who live here. Each of us. Not the oft-mentioned and vaguely defined THEM. I’m not saying we have to like each other or agree, and when we see cruelty we should absolutely call it out and actively try to stop it, and yes, people are flawed, sometimes deeply so, and are capable of terrible things.

But I haven’t lost faith in our citizens or country or public structures, imperfect though they all may be. We have faced dissent before, and found ways to come back together. I believe in We the People. Human beings. The possibility of choosing goodness.

I am arguing for civility. For the belief that though human interactions can be complicated, to err on the side of decency is a good thing, and that the effort to be courteous, even to people we don’t know and people we’ve only met online and people who dress strangely and people who cut us off and family members who profoundly grate on our nerves, is important. Even our smallest acts—a letter written on behalf of someone else or a letter written to a person who may never read it—have power.

This November, I will send a letter to Washington State’s Office of the Secretary of State in the form of a ballot. A small act, perhaps, but one that is critical to our democracy. I will cast my vote for the candidate who I feel best represents me, and regardless of the election outcome, I will respectfully carry on.

We can do this, fellow citizens.

12 thoughts on “Small Acts of Civility

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