Who Does Not Prefer Civility to Barbarism?*

6 Min read

2 Book recs

Average of five people you know

Affection, love between parent and child

Mrs. Fidget, a character trope

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Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect to those that are Present.

George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule No. 1*

*

I love reading about the type of characters and situations I have encountered in my own life. The author has lived as I have lived. Seen as I have seen. She gains credibility and authority as I turn pages. How will it work out?

What is less than pleasant is that slow, creeping awareness of characters whose less than admirable qualities bear similarities to my own. Peculiarities aside since they are neutral, for this point I mean to focus on the flaws, the negatives.

This passage explores a hideous misinterpretation of one type of love, Affection, which is common between a parent and child. Of the four types of love discussed, Affection is the most informal, casual, the least discriminating, and the humblest.

We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters’ side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents. Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance? Dogmatic assertions on matters which the children understand and their elders don’t, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously–sometimes of their religion–insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question “Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?” Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?

Affection, The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

I have seen such behavior. Have I been guilty of it?

Not that I care to admit, but if I look back over the years, see myself squarely as my child saw me: maybe. The self control needed to avoid habits of correction or nagging my adult children demands a conscious effort.

“Elbows off the table!” Where are their manners? We used this rhyme when they were little.

Mabel, Mabel if you’re able / Take your elbows off the table / This is not a horse’s stable / But a high class eating place.

With three children in the Army it is common to hear colorful language, and anecdotes about barracks life. When it happens at meals, it brings a swift rebuke.

“Not at the table. Verbal discipline,” I say, though I could tack on, Please. I am mother and host. This is a transgression, a sign of barbarism common in the ranks.

Yet the Army is the original standard bearer for protocol and personal ettiquette, from haircut formation to the salute. As guests and as my adult children, they had gone wide of the margin, comfortable with peers and forgetting the occasion.

Could it be that barbarous methods–the harsh comment, the ruthless interruption or dogmatic assertions— brought about such transgressions?

*

This unnerving resemblance in my reading helps check uncivil behavior, or at the very least provides more awareness. So, I was pleased to read about the perversions of Affection which I had detected early in others. And, with so intimate a relationship, I could have written this myself from long experience.

I am thinking of Mrs. Fidget, who died a few months ago. It is really astonishing how her family have brightened up. The drawn look has gone from her husband’s face; he begins to be able to laugh. The younger boy, whom I had always thought an embittered, peevish little creature, turns out to be quite human. The elder, who was hardly ever at home except when he was in bed, is nearly always there now and has begun to reorganise the garden. The girl, who was always supposed to be “delicate” (though I never found out what exactly the trouble was), now has the riding lessons which were once out of the question, dances all night, and plays any amount of tennis. Even the dog who was never allowed out except on a lead is now a well-known member of the Lamp-post Club in their road. . .

. . .

The Vicar says Mrs. Fidget is now at rest. Let us hope she is. What’s quite certain is that her family are.

Affection, The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Oh! A character so typical as to be a trope leaves behind a woe-be-gone family. Mrs. Fidget be gone and woes be gone. This is funny if it weren’t so sad.

If Mrs. Fidget had only stopped long enough to look in the mirror, to realize that if she continued in such fashion, her family would be better off without her. And, had she taken up meaningful work, she might have found comfort and purpose outside haranguing them with her neediness.

*

I am fascinated by the claim that, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Scientific evidence and common sense support the idea. We are influenced by those closest to us in many ways, thought and deed and fashion among them.

It took too long for me to realize the effects of toxic relationships, but the sketch of Mrs. Fidget is reason enough to seek out inspiring and good company. I am thoughtful about what I read, selective about content in hard copy and on the screen, such as shows I watch and sites I visit and newsletters I subscribe to. I encourage my adult children to be picky with friends and consider how they spend their time.

And yet. Suggestions and nagging, as it turns out, fall short as remedies. Doing–my work and hobbies and actions–is a better model. This is no epiphany.

The quality of interactions with others, especially with children, evolves or devolves little by little over time. Too often the idea we have of such Affection morphs into the hideous or the perverse — the opposite of the love we intend to give.

*

Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company. Rule 56, Washington’s Rules of Civility

*

*

FOOTNOTES

*”Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?” The title quote for this TreeHouseLetter is the last sentence of the first paragraph quoted above from The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. This passage comes from his chapter on Affection and turns the idea on its head that it’s not the rudeness in the rising generation he observes, but the bad manners of parents to children.

*George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule No. 1. Penned when he was 14 years old, his 110 rules graced my table for years when my children were young. They found the dated ones humorous but the relevance of these is timeless. The bound volume: George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. Applewood Books, 1988. With over 1500 reviews, 4.7 stars for George.

Washington’s Rules touched on in this letter, regarding language and manners at the table.

RULE NO. 49

Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.

RULE NO. 70

Reprehend not the imperfections of others for that belongs to parents, masters, and superiors.

RULE NO. 91

Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals; feed not with greediness; cut your bread with a knife, lean not on the table; neither find fault with what you eat.

RULE NO. 103

In company of your betters, be not longer in eating than they are; lay not your arm but only your hand upon the table.

*Here is the rest of the Mrs. Fidget’s missing paragraph– should you relish it as I did–which convinces us that we are not alone in having such a person in our social circle, or worse, in the family. What may be as beneficial is recognizing Mrs. Fidget when we see her, in others or in ourselves. CS Lewis. The Four Loves, 1960. Full text, multiple formats.

Mrs. Fidget very often said that she lived for her family. And it was not untrue. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew it. “She lives for her family,” they said; “what a wife and mother!” She did all the washing; true, she did it badly, and they could have afforded to send it out to a laundry, and they frequently begged her not to do it. But she did. There was always a hot lunch for anyone who was at home and always a hot meal at night (even in midsummer). They implored her not to provide this. They protested almost with tears in their eyes (and with truth) that they liked cold meals. It made no difference. She was living for her family. She always sat up to “welcome” you home if you were out late at night; two or three in the morning, it made no odds; you would always find the frail, pale, weary face awaiting you, like a silent accusation. Which meant of course that you couldn’t with any decency go out very often. She was always making things too; being in her own estimation (I’m no judge myself) an excellent amateur dressmaker and a great knitter. And of course, unless you were a heartless brute, you had to wear the things. (The Vicar tells me that, since her death, the contributions of that family alone to “sales of work” outweigh those of all his other parishioners put together). And then her care for their health! She bore the whole burden of that daughter’s “delicacy” alone. The Doctor–an old friend, and it was not being done on National Health–was never allowed to discuss matters with his patient. After the briefest examination of her, he was taken into another room by the mother. The girl was to have no worries, no responsibility for her own health. Only loving care; caresses, special foods, horrible tonic wines, and breakfast in bed. For Mrs. Fidget, as she so often said, would “work her fingers to the bone” for her family. They couldn’t stop her. Nor could they–being decent people–quite sit still and watch her do it. They had to help. Indeed they were always having to help. That is, they did things for her to help her to do things for them which they didn’t want done. As for the dear dog, it was to her, she said, “just like one of the children.” It was in fact as like one of them as she could make it. But since it had no scruples it got on rather better than they, and though vetted, dieted and guarded within an inch of its life, contrived sometimes to reach the dustbin or the dog next door.

Affection, The Four Loves by CS Lewis

**You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Jim Rohn.

Mar 18, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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