One free gift that’s on everybody’s list

By Janet Gilbert, JHUP Staff

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” – Henry James

Frankly, I wondered how I could possibly write this post about civility without coming off as the Purveyor of Politeness, the Diplomat of Decorum, the Crowned Captain of Courtesy. I kept returning to James, whose quotation above kicked off the call for nominations for the first annual Johns Hopkins Press Civility Award, and I thought I’d begin with an academic analysis.

Not really.

And yet, let’s explore why James repeats the word “kind.” It’s obviously an effective humor technique. It’s emphatic, for sure. It also imparts a poetic quality.

Close reading reveals it to be a clever way of saying that it is all and everything to be kind. But what about being smart and accomplished and successful? Or witty and talented and inspirational? Arguably, these are the attributes that will put you on a global stage with a Nobel, a Pulitzer, a Tony, or an Olympic gold.

Here is the thing about being kind: I have found that it rewards you—the bestower—every day, in a way I’m not convinced that the other, more prestigious prizes do. Not that I wouldn’t welcome the chance to explore the veracity of that statement by winning a Caldecott or an Oscar. But this I have learned from tenured Professor Experience: being kind engenders positive feelings and a pleasant ambiance, which makes your own life enjoyable and meaningful. Being kind consistently sparks real happiness in unexpected moments. Being kind is its own reward.

There’s a reason people say “It’s my pleasure,” when you thank them for demonstrating civility. Because it is their pleasure, their gift, in the end.

Obviously, I recommend being kind. Especially during the holiday season, when the architects of the festivities—the gift-buyers, card-senders, party-throwers, bill-payers and dinner-preparers—can feel especially pressured and anxious. Bad behavior ramps up under stress. Just ask the Grinch, or me after I’ve been up all night addressing holiday cards.

So, let’s all try letting someone else have that prime parking space. Ask someone how they are feeling, and engage with genuine empathy. Listen to your three-year-old recount the entire plot of the movie Frozen without interrupting. Willingly try on a different viewpoint and see if it fits. Don’t repeat the harsh criticism you heard about anyone or anything. Wait your turn at the department store counter, and if you find yourself becoming impatient, let someone go ahead of you. Say you’re sorry when your words could slice even the densest fruitcake.

You will be giving, and getting, the gift that’s at the very heart of the season.

Janet Gilbert is a writer and senior coordinator for direct mail & renewals in the Journals Division at Johns Hopkins University Press. She was the first recipient of the JHU Press Civility Award, presented by the Press’s Diversity Committee at our annual staff meeting in November.  Her Caldecott and Oscar come next.