“By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”
“The conduct of neither, if strictly examined, will be irreproachable; but since then, we have both, I hope, improved in civility.”
These quotes above are from Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice. Those who know me well, know that I am a pretty big fan of Miss Jane Austen. I enjoy reading her novels over and over again, and on my last foray into the late 18th century I was struck with how often Miss Austen comments on civility. It is a common subtext in all her novels; Mansfield Park right on through to the ever popular Pride and Prejudice. For our purposes I’ll stick with latter, simply because it is the most well know and popular. In Pride and Prejudice, Miss Austen uses the term civility 78 times, and she uses terms closely related to civility over 150! The Oxford English Dictionary says “civility” is “behaviour proper to the intercourse of civilized people; ordinary courtesy or politeness, as opposed to rudeness of behaviour; decent respect, consideration”. What struck me about Jane Austen’s writings is that the emphasis she places on civility seems to assert that it is a requirement for young women to be civil, in order to be attractive. Likewise, men, if they are to be desirable as husbands, must be exceedingly civil in manner. This ‘general civility,’ was not only a prerequisite for marriage, but for friendship as well. If a young lady was not found to be ‘civil‘ she was not worthy of friendship. Clearly civility was something of importance, and this was understood by the women of Jane Austen’s time.
So where am I going with all this? Well, reading about all this civility really got me thinking. What happened to it!?! Seriously. We live in the age of “ Mean Girls,” bullying is becoming a pandemic, online bullying is a whole new genre in the despicable art of meanness, and our culture-at-large is suffering from a widespread rudeness. Maybe us girls could benefit from taking a page (pun intended) from Jane Austen’s time.
Civility, by definition, simply means means being nice. It means being polite. Even when you don’t want to. It used to be understood that females tended to embody these qualities without much effort. There is something in a woman which seems to default to civility. In fact, in Gods great design for men and women, women are the civilizers! “In every successful society, women are the ultimate keepers of virtue. They are the civilizing influence on the men and the culture around them. They tame the worst appetites of men, whether it be toward violence, sexual aggressiveness and promiscuity, or even just things like laziness or coarseness. The extent to which women degenerate, whatever the reason, is the extent to which a powerful and wholesome check on the culture at large is lost.” (2)
In Mulieris Dignitatem, the Late Holy Father, John Paul II quoted the Closing Message of the Second Vatican Council, “”The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling”.(3) He goes on to explain how humanity itself is, in a unique way, entrusted to woman. Surely part of this entrusting includes civilizing.
How many movies have you watched about the “wild man” being “tamed” by the beautiful woman? How many story lines show a man smoothing out his rough edges because of the influence of a woman? Now, this is not to say that men shouldn’t be wild, per-say – John Eldredge, in his wonderful book Wild at Heart, explains how men are created to show us God’s wild side. The heart of a man is wild – the same way that the Lion is wild – dignified, the King of the Jungle, confident. Wild. This is good. As women we shouldn’t seek to feminize men. Thats not what I am talking about. I am talking about civilizing. Think Mogli in The Jungle Book, the Driver in the movie Australia, maybe even Frank Churchill in Emma. (although I think the jury may still be out on him…).
And just how do we accomplish this? Well, dear reader, the answer is both simple and difficult. We do this, this amazing feat of civilizing our culture, by being ourselves! Yep. By being the woman God created you to be. God has already given us the tools and the ability to carry out His plans for us. Since part of being a woman involves this whole ‘civilizing’ thing, we’ve already got what it takes to do it. The difficulty lies in, well, in actually doing it! The culture at large takes its toll on us women. Unfortunately one of the biggest blows we’ve received has been dealt by the Feminist Movement. Ever since Feminism became less about getting women the vote and protecting women, and more about telling women that they have to be like men, and men that they have to be like women, our society has suffered and millions of women have been down-right confused. The message that is sent to us is this: “As a mere woman, you are no good. In order to truly BE somebody, you have to act more like a man.” Here’s the problem though, if we women are so busy trying to act like men, who is there left to act like a woman??
God created men and women both with different strengths. In marriage these play out as a couple grows in their marital union – utilizing the strengths of both. But marriage is not the only place where the complementarity of men and women plays out. This complimentarity plays out in society as well – in fact it is crucial to society. The strengths of men – some of which we’ve discussed in previous posts – include a physical strength, the ability to have a laser-like focus, the propensity to initiate, what at times seems like reckless bravery….you get the idea. Without these qualities our great nation never would have been explored. Towns and cities would never have been built, and our very infrastructure would be non-existant. The monetary and economic systems in this country would be vastly different without the big “risk-takers” of the early industrial age, and those men who were willing to invest large amounts of money in ‘risky’ business ventures. Why are more men CEOs? Why are more men involved in ‘high risk’ investing etc? Simply because men are made to be risk takers. It comes much more naturally to them. Thank goodness too! We never would have won two World Wars, never would have landed men on the moon, never would have discovered that the United States does in fact stretch across to the Pacific Ocean if men weren’t hard wired for risk-taking and bravery.
That all being said, where does that leave woman? Not with a boring role in society – just with a much different one. Women are created to be the civilizers. Pope John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici explains that, “women have the task of assuring the moral dimension of culture, the dimension – namely of a culture worthy of the person – of an individual yet social life” (4). This is no menial task! Think of those rough towns of the Westward Expansion – towns full of men – towns that were mean and course. It wasn’t until the women started showing up that they became more than dusty main streets populated by the rough-and-ready. It was women who brought life and culture. It was the women who brought the civility into the civilization. This same storyline plays out through history, just as it plays out on a much smaller scale in our families.
I can’t tell you how many times my husband has said to me, “If it wasn’t for you, I don’t know where I’d be right now.” When I ask him to take a guess it’s never a pretty picture that he paints. Did I try to change him? No. Did I shackle him up to the ball and chain? No. Did I beg, coerce, bribe, threaten and nag him into becoming the amazing man he is today? Haha, no way! So what then happened to this former Marine who has had some “crazier days” and who, at one time thought he might never settle down? Simple. He got civilized. He became chivalrous. You see, as women we have the ability to set the bar for the men. If we set that bar high enough, they’ll reach it. What I see happening far too often though, is women setting this proverbial bar so low that men can pretty much step over it. We have given up on our civilizing influence! Some women refuse to set the bar high because they are wounded. Some because they are bored, and some because they just are sick and tired of waiting for Mr. Right. On one hand, who can blame them? It can seem pretty bleak out there. On the other hand, shame on them! You have a gift! You have a sorely needed, civilizing gift – use it! (if you are wounded, and desperately seeking love, I encourage you to find healing and help – because you will never find healing by settling for less than you deserve.)
So why are we the bar setters in society? Just as Pope John Paul II pointed out in the above quote – women are the moralizing influence. In both of the writings already mentioned by the late Holy Father he points out that humanity is entrusted in a special way to women. This is because we have a very strong moral compass – and an ability to see the dignity of each individual. This gift, this ability of recognizing a person’s dignity is what compels us to civilize. It’s why we set the bar – because we know we deserve to be treated with the dignity God gave us. Conversely, it’s also because we recognize that men deserve to become the men God created them to be – and part of becoming a Godly Man means treating others with the proper dignity and respect that they deserve. That, my friends, is civility.
It starts with you. Its starts with you demanding, in your own beautiful, feminine way, to be treated like the princess that you are. We must teach, in humility and love, the men in our lives how to treat us, and encourage them to be the men that God created them to be – wild and brave, but civil and polite. Chivalrous. Perhaps that is the male word for civil. Chivalrous. We absolutely must instruct, by word and most especially by example the young girls in our lives how to behave. It is this instruction that will allow those young girls to grow up and be great “civilizers” themselves. Put Mean Girls back on the movie rack. It starts one person at a time, one relationship at a time, one family at a time, until it has effected a whole community, a whole culture. But it must start with you. You must know, in your heart, that you are a beautiful daughter of Our Heavenly Father, and that He has given you a dignity that deserves nothing less than chivalry. Nothing less than true civility. Once you have internalized this beautiful Truth, you will not settle for less. Neither from a man, nor from another woman. It is this not-settling that prods our culture towards general civility. It is acting with great civility, yourself, towards others that edges our society forward. It is not tolerating rudeness or bullying, and expecting politeness and kindness – from the young and older alike. It is at the same time meekly setting the example, and boldly speaking out. It is acting as a Woman. For if you don’t, who will?
Until next time, may God Bless your beautiful, Feminine hearts.
3) Mulieris Dignitatem, found online at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_15081988_mulieris-dignitatem_en.html
4) Christifideles Laici #51