Courtesy of Mind


AT a casual glance these words may not imply all they really stand for. They may seem to mean merely the knack of listening well, — although one should apologize for the word “merely” in this connection. To listen well is not merely a bit of luck; it is no slight accomplishment, no second-hand virtue. It is always a quietly attractive charm, and one deserving a higher place than it gets in any list of good resolutions. Just here one is tempted to add, that if to listen well is worth something, certainly the art of knowing when not to talk at all is worth more; for even the most garrulous of us likes now and then a pause. The man or woman who unremittingly ploughs through people’s ideas, regardless of the conversational soil, may be a good, steady workman, but is none the less a bore. The pleasure of many a drive, a sail, or a summer’s-day walk, has been quite spoiled by the one member of the party who felt it necessary to “keep things going.” We do not always want our minds to be cut into furrows. There are times when we long to let them lie fallow, absorbing color and sound, and the hundred and one little impressions of sky and grass, or the warmth of a restful room.

But to return to our phrase. Courtesy of mind implies more than conversational good manners, more than a willing quietness. It means, first of all, a genuine respect for the other person’s opinion, a desire to hear that opinion expressed, and an eagerness to modify one’s own if something better can be learned. Have you never noticed how many people state their own views clearly, and then relapse into a state of nervous inattention while others speak ? It may be done unconsciously, but its very unconsciousness is the more telling. When the first speaker’s turn comes again, he takes up the argument where he dropped it, as if nothing had been heard during the interval, no modifying impression received. Like the farmer in the Berkshires, who could n’t see the view because the hills were in the way, so we fail to see the next man’s point because our own looms too large on the horizon. Indeed, just as one may be bright, yet crude; clever in speech, yet dull in the gentle art of understanding; so one may grasp firmly and with clearmindedness big intellectual problems, yet fail to bring forth this finer flower of culture and of a loving heart — courtesy of mind. Its roots lie deep in unselfishness, and it grows only in the clear air of tolerance and the bright light of an open mind.

A deeper reason for cultivating this infrequent charm is the sincere wish to help other people think through their difficulties and solve their individual problems. To do this we must make them feel that they have our full attention, our responsive interest, and that every shade of feeling which they express is worth hearing. A kindly priest of the Roman church once said to the writer in speaking of the confessional, “The average sin told me is of a gross nature; there are rarely any subtle distinctions of conscience to be decided. I could tell instantly what should be done; but you can’t do that; you must let the people talk; let them tell it all. It does them good.” There is no doubt that this priest has gained the unusual power of understanding which he possesses, as much by his unfailing courtesy as by any more brilliant quality.

After all “courtesy of mind” is but an often overlooked phase of unselfishness, and its secret is expressed in the quiet lines of a quiet hymn, —

A heart at leisure from itself
To soothe and sympathize.