good mannersI am writing a new book I am tentatively calling A Radiant People: The Christian Path Toward A Better World. The book is framed in part by that marvelous passage from Jeremiah imagining that we “shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” Radiant people, it seems to me, have discovered the goodness of the Lord. That makes them radiant. That causes them to be good, to be kind and gentle and forgiving. That causes them to shine this goodness into the world. It makes the world better. It makes them better people.

Well, there is a lot more to say about this long and vibrant tradition of radiance (more to come later), but last week David Brooks had a wonderful column that speaks so well about this theme I am developing. He is not talking from the Christian tradition, at least not explicitly, but his comments are right on target for my purposes.

His column is about how cool people, people who think they are really smart, people who assume a posture of superiority to other common folk, do not “suffer fools gladly.” Listen to this:

Today, the phrase is often used as an ambiguous compliment. It suggests that a person is so smart he has trouble tolerating people who are far below his own high standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks.

But the results of this posture are not good, either for the person, or the world he or she creates:

This sounds fine in the abstract, but when you actually witness somebody in the act of not suffering fools gladly, it looks rotten. Once I watched a senior member of the House of Representatives rip into a young reporter after she nervously asked him an ill-informed question.

She was foolish about that particular piece of legislation, but, in the moment, he looked the bigger fool. He was making a snap judgment about a person with no real information about her actual qualities. He was exposing a yawning gap between his own high opinion of himself and his actual conduct in the world. He was making the mistake, which metaphysical fools tend to make, that there is no connection between your inner moral quality and the level of courtesy you present to others.

I like that a lot. Sometimes we think it doesn’t matter whether we conduct ourselves kindly. Kindness is not on the exam to graduate from college. We are conditioned in school, for example, that if we are among the smart ones in the class, there is something special about us. Being smart qualifies us to treat others badly. The media tells us, especially young girls, that being pretty lets you get away with being unkind, snotty. But kindness matters. Being smart or pretty does not give license to be a jerk. Being kind wins in the end.

Brooks goes on to say:

Smart people who’ve thought about this usually understand that the habits we put in practice end up shaping the people we are within. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”

And so I say to all parents and teachers: Teach manners, teach kindness and goodness. Tell your young people that being a jerk doesn’t cut it. Tell them that kindness wins in the end. And for the rest of us: Let us learn kindness as the habit of our hearts. Let us engage in the discipline of kindness formation. Let us shine that light into our worlds, no matter how big or small those worlds might be.