Recently my wife and I were sitting in the audience at a dance performance. (Not surprised, are you?) Across the aisle to our right, a group of boys chattered away as we awaited the lights to dim. Their ages ranged from 7 to 12 or so.
I made several observations about this androcentric aggregate of pre-adolescents. They occupied several rows with empty seats on either side and in front and behind them. They were located strategically away from the rest of the audience, as if they had arrived as an identifiable association, like Boy Scouts or a Little League team.
No adults were sitting among them or near them. They had congregated detached from their parents. Given that this was a recital of a local dance studio, it meant that these boys probably had sisters in the performance and their parents had permitted them to sit with their friends rather than confine them to seats of boredom with the family.
Many of them possessed another cure for boredom, cell phones. Several of them were in the cell phone text drill: pull out the phone, slide it open, quickly punch the tiny buttons on the miniature keypad, slide the phone shut, wait for the phone signal indicating a response, repeat the above steps.
Energy pulsated from the group. They exhibited perpetual motion – lean over to talk, swing the legs, type on the cell phone, turn around to talk, tap on the arm rest, wiggle in the seat, pull out the cell phone, stand up, hit a friend, etc. (If only we could invent a method of harnessing this movement we would solve some of our energy shortages.)
Deb and I anxiously watched the gang, fearful of how it would play out for our recital experience. These were boys – restless, fidgety, hormonally-challenged primates. Absent mature supervision, how would they control their instincts? Who would help them subdue their primitive impulses? What hope existed for those of us near them?
Our fears proved to be well-founded. Their texting drill continued throughout the performance, with the additional distraction of the cell phone light when opened. Their talking was unabated, although they surprisingly restrained their volume. Their activity repeatedly distracted our attention from the stage to the section of seats to our right.
What parents in their right minds would allow their pubescent son to sit with his friends at a recital — without adult supervision? Boys at this age should not be allowed off a leash when taken into public. They usually lack the training and the self-control to safely integrate into public life without parental oversight. They are not bad, they are just boys.
I thought maybe we were overly sensitive and slightly paranoid, until we talked to some friends who were ushering. In addition to these boys, the ushers had to endure the ceaseless incivility of people walking in and out of the door during numbers. Adults could not contain their random whims for even a minute or two so that they could leave without disturbing anyone. They often exited for the purpose of answering their cell phones (undoubtedly urgent messages of life or death that could not wait for a minute, much less an hour).
Our usher friends had long ago surpassed the level of annoyance and were now approaching the stage of seething. And we still had the second half of numbers to go. One of them desperately tried to announce that people should not leave or enter the auditorium during a piece, but most people were too busy scurrying to the lobby to pay attention to him.
We are rapidly becoming a mannerless society. Manners require some degree of humility, acknowledging the needs of others ahead of your own. Manners demand an intentional restraint of your instinctive selfishness.
Manners beg for training, because humans do not come with them pre-loaded. One generation must instruct the next on the rules of order for various social situations. This instruction usually comes in the context of practice. When parents do not want the hassle of correcting their own children’s incivility, or worse, do not practice manners themselves, social order mutates into social chaos.
Consumerism opposes manners. In a culture that elevates the individual to royal status, eqoism will overrun civility. Self-absorption will consume self-denial. The self will ignore the other. As long as we internalize the message that “You are the only one that matters,” we will act like it is true. When the world exists primarily for your pleasure, you will consume it to the neglect of your neighbor.
Civility characterizes the kingdom of God. Kingdom citizens are instructed to “count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3), and “whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43), and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).
Professing to follow Jesus should mean the practice of manners motivated by love and respect for others. And it will certainly mean forfeiting our own pleasurable experience at dance recitals without unleashing our wrath on the unmannered among us.