What Is A Gentleman?
The example given us by Our Saviour was no doubt in the mind of Cardinal Newman when he wrote his well-known definition: “It is almost the definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts unnecessary pain.” True courtesy, inspired by charity and modelled on the example of Christ, will make us worthy of this title. Our courtesy will have become a virtue and not merely an external gloss that can be readily enough applied and just as readily rubbed off.
It is told of King James I of England, that when a certain candidate was proposed to him for a royal honour, the King remarked: “I can make him a lord, but only God Almighty can make him a gentleman.” The King might have been merely expressing his despair of the social reform of a difficult case. However, there could be a deeper truth in his words. Certain it is that when the grace of God inspires our courtesy we are more likely to measure up to Cardinal Newman’s definition and so resemble more closely our model Christ.
A gentleman will be careful not to cause embarrassment to others by complying with some rule of etiquette in such a way as to render more noticeable the failure of others to observe it. Occasions will arise when you are expected to put aside what etiquette prescribes and follow the lead of another, who, from ignorance or for some other reason, has not conformed to the usual practice. The important principle involved here is that charity is more important than etiquette. There is a well-known story of a guest who was invited to dine with King Edward VII of England. Being unaccustomed to the elegances of a royal table, the unfortunate man proceeded to quench his thirst by drinking the water which he found in the finger bowl near his place. The King, who was seated close-by, saved the situation and, without comment, drank the water in his own finger bowl.
We need not be unduly concerned if elderly people or those in a higher station depart from what we believe to be the rules of etiquette. This is a liberty, which must sometimes be tolerated, especially if it does not involve any real inconvenience to others. Hostesses who entertained Napoleon Bonaparte had to accept the great man’s habit of drinking his coffee from a saucer. However, their forbearance was stretched to the limit when he took to his absentminded practice of carving his name on the arms of chairs.
If there is less courtesy in the world today than there ought to be, it is due largely to a breakdown of the virtue of reverence. We are generally aware of the need for reverence in the form of external piety and respect for holy things. But there is much more to this virtue. There must also be reverence for the authority of parents, of teachers, of civil and religious superiors; reverence for worthwhile customs and conventions; reverence for age; reverence for women. If you are lacking in reverence you are not likely to show in your behaviour that restraint, and the readiness to put yourself out for others, which are the marks of a true gentleman.
Why be Polite?
Unfortunately, reverence is not a strong point in the today’s character. We tend to elevate our irreverence to the rank of a virtue. We pride ourselves on straight-from-the shoulder approach to life. We smile approvingly at tales of soldiers scoring a point off high-ranking officers, or of the Prime Minister who, when about to be invested at Buckingham Palace as a Privy Councillor, swept aside the etiquette of ceremonial dress with the remark, “I bet I’ll still be a P.C.” A hearty contempt for sham and humbug may be admirable features of today’s character, but there is a danger of carrying this attitude too far and so stamping ourselves as a nation of boors and hillbillies. There are no rewards for boorishness. No matter what our motives may be; and there is nothing soft or effeminate in attention to the rules of politeness. That is one of the first lessons we all need to learn.
Home and Society
For it is part of God’s plan for us that we are all born into a family, and so from our earliest years we learn to live in that small social unit which is part of the larger society of the world. That is the way God wants us to live; therefore he blesses family life with deep, genuine happiness, provided each member realizes the true meaning of love and sacrifice and is prepared to do all he can to promote peace and mutual understanding. If it is your good fortune to grow up in a home where all the members of the family have a true love for one another, are ready to co-operate for the common good and respect the authority of parents, then that is about as close to heaven as you can ever hope to reach in this life.
In the Holy Home of Nazareth we have the Divine Example of what the happiness and harmony of family life can be. That was the perfect home, not because of the dignity of those who lived in it but because of the perfect love and mutual respect that reigned there.
There is something sacred about the home; it is the place where your education begins and where you must learn genuine refinement and good manners. School and society at large can never make up altogether for the lack of home training. Society depends upon the home; it can function only as well as the standard of home-life will allow. When we hear so frequently of the breaking-up of families, is it any wonder that there are disagreements, conflicts and unhappiness on the wider social scale? If we are to make life happier for all, we must look to the good example of those truly Christian homes where the members not only live together but also work together, play together and pray together. The so-called big things of life – wealth, position, and reputation – are little indeed without the background of a happy home.
One of the best things in family life is that we learn to get along with others. If you do not learn that lesson in your own home, you must learn it sooner or later, and perhaps only at the cost of many painful experiences. Therefore it is necessary to accept your part in the smooth running of the home, to take your share of responsibility and above all not to grumble.
There is a type known as the “street angel”. He is often uncooperative, inconsiderate and bad-tempered to the members of his own family, but can always turn on a show of smooth charm for the benefit of visitors and outsiders. In his own little circle he is the popular man, always good for a favour or a pleasant word. But see him at home, and you will find him lazy, morose and sharp-tongued. To him home is little more than a place to sleep in and have an occasional meal. He is the bed-and-breakfast lodger. In the company of his impressionable friends he is patronizing towards his parents or wife; that is, if he mentions them at all. He refers to them by smart nicknames and sometimes even adopts an apologetic air in speaking of them or her. This is contemptible, ungrateful behaviour, and even one of this type in a family is enough to destroy the happiness and harmony of the home.
In your home more than anywhere else you enjoy the fruits of real affection, personal sacrifice and loving attention to your needs. Therefore you ought to be at your best when at home, always ready to repay by your own conduct the hundreds of little daily courtesies that are shown towards you by the members of your family. Your manners are just a mockery if you keep them for the street and your acquaintances outside the family circle.
The command, “Honour thy father and thy mother”, is the basis and beginning of all courtesy in the home. Your cultivation of gracious manners must begin with obedience and respect for your parents. It might be expected that this could be taken for granted; yet it is unfortunately true that natural affection, even when supported by an express command of God, is for some people no sure guarantee against thoughtless or inconsiderate behaviour towards parents or wife.
There can be no better way of fostering and strengthening family spirit than the practice of family prayer. You have reason to thank God if you have been brought up in a family where prayer and the practices of religion have their rightful place. Discourtesy, unpleasantness and disobedience are not likely to exist among the members of a family who daily go on their knees together in prayer, especially for the recitation of the Family Rosary.
It is an inspiring sight to see a whole family kneeling together at Mass and receiving Holy Communion together. You should do your part as often as possible to make attendance at religious duties a family affair. This should not be difficult while you are a boy and still at school, but even later on, when you have more independence in these things, you should look for opportunities of being with the family at Mass, Holy Communion and Benediction.
Don’t get up in the morning with a grouch, no matter how badly things have gone the day before. You should greet every member of your family with a cheery “Good morning”. It is not always easy to be cheerful at that time of the day, especially if you are still only half-awake and have vaguely before your mind the thought of another day’s duties at work, school or elsewhere. It is amazing how persons, normally cheerful, can be grumpy before breakfast. There is consequently all the more need to take yourself in hand and throw off the effects of sleep as quickly as possible.
It is important to add here that at the start of each new day you owe a debt of gratitude and courtesy to God. You fulfil that duty by your morning prayers. No one finds it very easy to pray at that hour. God makes allowance for our difficulties and rewards our goodwill. To neglect morning prayers shows a lack of faith and generosity. Don’t put off the saying of your morning prayers until later in the day; there is every likelihood that you will forget them altogether. So go down on your knees each morning as soon as you rise and direct your first act of courtesy for the day towards God.
It is important to have a definite time for rising in the morning and to keep to it. If you are a boy and you are called by your father or mother, get up promptly and don’t make it necessary for the call to be repeated over and over again. How often it happens in the home that mother or wife, who perhaps has already been busy for some time preparing breakfast or cutting lunches, must repeatedly interrupt her work to give yet another call to a lazy member of the family! This tiresome routine, repeated day after day, can become exhausting even for the most patient of wives or parents. The sluggard boy may not be deliberately disobedient, but his persistent lack of consideration is more than any parent should be asked to bear.
Be in time for meals. Boys are perhaps more unconscious than others of the work entailed in the daily preparation and serving of meals. Don’t add to the labour by making it necessary for your mother to keep your meal aside to suit your own personal arrangements. If you should be late and thereby cause inconvenience to others, a word of explanation and apology is called for. It is all too easy for members of the family to take mother for granted in her post of family-cook.
If you have occasion to be out at night, try to arrive home at a reasonable hour. You should, of course, inform your wife, mother or father beforehand where you are going and how long you expect to be away. Something unforeseen may detain you. In such a case prudence as well as courtesy suggests that you find some means of letting your wife or parents know that you will be late home. They will naturally want to know what has happened to you, and will at least be relieved to learn that you are not in the casualty ward or the lock-up.
When you do arrive home, don’t proclaim your entry by slamming doors, walking heavily or talking loudly. Other members of the family who have long since retired to bed will not appreciate the disturbance.
Being considerate means nothing more than a readiness to place the convenience of others before your own. As it is normally your wife or mother who has most concern with the practical running of the home, you should give particular attention to saving her any unnecessary work or inconvenience.
You should not get into the habit of bringing home numerous personal friends, expecting your wife or mother to entertain them or provide meals for them. Some close friends of the family are always welcome; they need no invitation. But it is unreasonable to expect your family to give time to entertaining those who are known only to you. It is an embarrassing position for a wife or mother of a family to have to provide meals for unexpected guests at very short notice. When inviting your personal friends to share the family hospitality, it is well not to presume too much on the patience and generosity of your wife or parents.
The radio, the car and the telephone, when used with due consideration for the tastes and the comfort of others, can make family life more agreeable. It must be remembered, however, that these facilities in the home are normally for the benefit of all the members of the family. Your favourite session on the radio, if it is boomed through the whole house, compelling all to hear whether they want to or not becomes a source of annoyance. When other members of the family are present you cannot always expect to have the privilege of choosing the programme.
The telephone should not become the monopoly of any member of the family. Apart from the cost of numerous unnecessary calls, serious inconvenience may be caused to others of the family who wish to make a call. Likewise people who wish to put a call through to your family are inconvenienced when the line is constantly engaged.
When you have finished reading the family newspaper do not leave it in bits and pieces, scattered here and there over the floor and the furniture. Put the various parts together so that the next person can find them easily and read in comfort.
Show yourself considerate also in the use of the bathroom. Remember that it is for the use of all; do not therefore occupy it for an unreasonable time. There is more than a little truth in the cartoons we see from time to time, of a pyjama-clad queue standing impatiently at the closed door of the bathroom, while the unconcerned occupant sings away merrily inside.
Birthdays and anniversaries provide you with occasions to show your affection and consideration for the members of the family, especially, if you are a married man, to your wife. As these days come round each year you should find the means of doing some little favour or procuring a present for wife, father, mother, brother or sister. This can usually be done even while you are still at school for expensive gifts are not necessary. It is your thoughtfulness which will be appreciated even more than the gift.
If a member of the family is sick, you should not leave it all to others to attend to the patient. You may be able to help indirectly by offering to do little services for your wife or parents, thus freeing them to give more time to the sick one. Thoughtfulness of this kind will be particularly pleasing to your wife or parents if the illness requires their frequent attendance at a hospital. The sickness of a member of the family always throws a little extra responsibility on the rest; they should accept it generously.
There should be no bullying or bickering among the members of a family. Sometimes older members, imagining that age brings importance and authority, throw their weight around at the expense of the younger members. There may be family differences, but they should not be allowed to poison the happy relations of the family. To nurse a resentment is an unmanly way to act. A spirit of charitable forgiveness is necessary to enable a family to ride out these petty storms.
You should acquire the habit of making an immediate apology whenever you have inconvenienced anybody, not only in the home but on all occasions, for example when you pass directly in front of a person. Generally one of the conventional phrases, “I’m sorry”, “I beg your pardon”, or “Excuse me” will be sufficient. However, the apology should always be sincere, no matter how briefly expressed.
Lastly, be considerate to the neighbours, especially where noise is concerned. Although there must be some reasonable compromise in this matter, as noise is at times unavoidable, the neighbourhood should not be subjected to constant annoyance occasioned by your parties, your radio, your lawnmower or your dog. Also there should be some thought for the convenience of others if you must practise a musical instrument. There is nothing that can more quickly depopulate a street and bring down the value of real estate in the neighbourhood than an assiduous, but uncertain devotee of the cornet or the bagpipes.
Your home should be much more to you than the place where you keep your bed and get your meals. Your co-operation is needed to make the home attractive and to maintain it in good repair. In this way you can take some of the burden of work and expense, which your wife or parents must otherwise bear. There are numerous tasks about the house that must be attended to. Not many families are in a position to hand these over to an army of servants. To refuse to do your share indicates laziness or selfishness.
All can help, at least indirectly, by cultivating habits of cleanliness and order. In this way you can do much to reduce the amount of work that must otherwise fall to others, especially your wife or mother. Don’t toss your belongings in disorder around your room; have a definite place for everything. Don’t leave wet raincoats, galoshes, shoes or umbrellas where they might stain floors, carpets or furniture. Always wipe your shoes at the door when there is any possibility of bringing dust or mud inside. Be careful in handling objects that might mark the walls. The attractiveness of a home often depends on well-chosen and well-applied wall colours. But the most pleasing interior decoration will be quickly disfigured by even one careless or clumsy person in the house.
For many of the commodities needed in the home, it is a question of go-and-get-it. Somebody must “do the messages”. It shows a poor spirit of co-operation if wife or mother is always left to attend to this necessary task when younger members of the family could quite easily undertake it. Don’t make your wife or mother the family packhorse; don’t wear her out – you may need her longer than you think. When you are asked to run an errand, attend to it promptly and with a smile, no matter what weighty matters of your own you may have to interrupt.
You are probably not in a position to hand out orders to a head-gardener while you sit back and watch the flowers grow. It is necessary for you or someone else in the family to put your hands to the spade or get behind a Lawnmower. There may be no other way of keeping the family estate in order; nature won’t wait while you are making up your mind. If Dad hasn’t the time to do it himself, the task is likely to fall on you, even if it must be by paternal decree. You would do well to anticipate the blow and get out into the garden without waiting to be told.
Remember that a family is a team, and, like any other team, will succeed best when every member pulls his weight. Good teamwork is the best way to ensure the happiness, which God intended us to enjoy in family life.