Graciousness was once encouraged and cultivated. It was a sign of good character, and to be called gracious was a compliment of the highest order. Anyone can learn to say the right words, or do the right thing at the right time.
But graciousness goes beyond politeness. It is a sincere desire to make others feel valued and respected. It involves being courteous and agreeable, even when you disagree. Graciousness doesn’t cost a thing, but it can buy a world of goodwill.
In their open letter to Sasha and Malia Obama, Jenna and Barbara Bush remind us what graciousness looks like in practice. Their sweet remembrances of times past as children in the White House give us a glimpse into a world that few know. They encourage Sasha and Malia to use their experiences in the White House to shape their future plans as they begin to step out of their parents’ shadows and forge their own paths, while reminding the rest of us that we have watched the Obama sisters “grow from girls to impressive young women with grace and ease.”
Jenna and Barbara Exemplify Graciousness
The Obamas have had life-changing experiences in their travels, from visiting the Robben Island prison cell of Nelson Mandela to traveling to Liberia and Morocco with their mom to share the importance of staying in school with the young girls they met. The Bushes remark that these are girls “who saw themselves in you, saw themselves in your parents, saw who they could become if they continued to study and learn.”
Most importantly, Jenna and Barbara acknowledge how hard the spotlight can be for children of the president. They acknowledged that the transition is an emotional one as the Obama family moves out of the White House to begin what is next. Their words are recognition for a job well done:
You have lived through the unbelievable pressure of the White House. You have listened to harsh criticism of your parents by people who had never even met them. You stood by as your precious parents were reduced to headlines. Your parents, who put you first and who not only showed you but gave you the world. As always, they will be rooting for you as you begin your next chapter. And so will we.
Many Of Us Don’t Even Bother Anymore
This is what graciousness looks like—two young women taking the time to reach out and connect. They didn’t have to do this. But as two of only a handful of people who have been First Children, it was sweet of them to do it, and sweet of them to share these words with all of us so we can celebrate Sasha and Malia along with them.
It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of people want to make the effort to be gracious anymore. Our society and our culture have splintered into factions. We curate our news and circles of friends so that we are surrounded with like-minded people and information that confirms our beliefs, rather than challenging them. We are so unused to interacting with people who have different beliefs, “How to Talk to Your Crazy Uncle” articles abound the week before Thanksgiving. We are hyper-focused on ourselves: distracted and drowning in information, preoccupied with a to-do list that never ends. It takes extra time and mental energy to be polite—much less gracious. Many of us can’t be bothered with it anymore.
In our rapidly secularizing culture, politics is fast becoming a religion for many. People approach their party affiliation with the same fervor that Georgians pull for UGA or Georgia Tech—both of whom declare to Hell with the other in their school fight songs. True believers think they alone have all the answers, and work to convert the lost souls who don’t give a flying flip about politics except in election years. The loudest voices on the Left and the Right have moved farther and farther away from each other. Those of us in the middle feel like children in a crumbling family, pulled in two different directions by squabbling parents. The loudmouths want to win, and the rest of us are sitting here wanting our family to be whole.
Yet We All Want The Same Things
We all, on both Left and Right, want the same things. We want to live our best life as we see fit. We want safe neighborhoods with good schools, so we can raise our children and give them the tools they need to succeed. We want to help our neighbors who are struggling, and we want to make our communities the best they can be. Where we differ is how to get there, and what role the government should play in this process.
The common ground is there if we bother to find it. But we can’t seem to talk about it in a way that is constructive. We have forgotten how to be gracious.
Because we live in polarizing times, Jenna and Barbara Bush’s goodwill letter attracted negative feedback from some on the Left. Linda Stasi in the New York Daily News advised Sasha and Malia to ignore their advice because in her words, “They have a father to be ashamed of.” (Did she even read the last paragraph of their letter?) True believers in blind partisanship can’t see kindness when it’s expressed by the other side. It is a sad testament to where we are as a society. Anyone who can’t read such a letter without being ugly about it has given politics too large a role in their life.
How Can We Allow for Graciousness In Our Politics?
Maybe creating a space for graciousness in our politics is what we need. We need to find that common ground, and help people feel like we are moving forward together—not just lurching in different directions. There may not be a whole lot of historical precedent for graciousness in politics.
After all, Alexander Hamilton died in a duel at the hand of Aaron Burr, in part because of an election. But we can look to the examples of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who, after torpedoing their friendship for more than a decade over political differences, eventually found enough grace to rekindle their friendship in their retirement years.
We need to listen to each other. It’s time to cut out the knee jerk reactions. The hyper-partisans on the fringes will likely not be able to do this, and will need to be tuned out. But the rest of us can, and we can insist that our leaders make an effort, as well.
Graciousness doesn’t cost a thing. But it sure does make public life more pleasant.