As I opened my year-end e-mail, I was greeted with a letter that caught my attention and my breath. So rare, it was. So simple, and so stunningly disarming.
It was an apology from a reader, who wrote:
"In going through my 'out' file the other day I came across an e-mail I sent you concerning something or other that I was obviously exercised over. I said to you, 'I used to think you were worth reading, etc., etc.' That was uncalled for and rude. I apologize."
I quickly wrote back: "What a nice way to begin the new near. Apology accepted. Thank you."
Few are the apologies I receive or extend, and the launch of a new year seems a good time to correct that oversight. But first a few observations about the nature of offense and the value of making amends.
I'm not sure how we became so rough or why, as a nation, we decided that manners don't matter. I'm not lecturing here. As with most of my columns, I'm really talking to myself. The fact that others read and react to my thoughts will always be a source of wonder to me.
When you sit alone in a room with a keyboard and think aloud, as it were, it is never with the idea of an audience. At least not for me. The thought of actual readers probably would render me wordless, a result many doubtless would applaud. Wait, I have their e-mail addresses right here!
Despite my newspaper affiliation, I've worked essentially alone the past 20 years, mostly from home (a pajamahadeen in the pre-blog era), tweaking the culture based on decades of reporting, experience and observation. For reasons that continue to baffle as well as humble, I've been granted a forum over time by readers who still take newspapers with their morning coffee. Bless their hearts.
Of all my mistakes through my years, the ones I regret most were errors of judgment and civility more than matters of fact, which are more easily corrected. As H.L. Mencken put it (and as JWR's Paul Greenberg recently reminded us in his lovely New Year's column): "Anyone can be accurate and even profound, but it is damned hard work to make criticism charming."
The temptation of clever cruelty is seductive. Oh, that turn of phrase that makes you slap your own thigh in delight. La Perp, at times, c'est moi.
But the arena calls for it, no? The masses want sangre! Or do they?
In searching for an answer, it is helpful to be on the receiving end of invective. Nothing like a taste of one's own blood to resurrect interest in the Golden Rule. It is equally bracing to be treated with respect, if only to recognize how rare it is and how little most of us contribute to the cause of civility. Charming criticism is, indeed, art.
If one were to plot the decline of civility in discourse, I suspect the parallel line would represent technology, especially the Internet, e-mail and the blogosphere all too fast, too easy and too anonymous. E-mail, most of all, is fraught with the potential for imminent regret. "Do not drink and send" should be the sticky note attached to many home computers. As a rule, I delete hate mail as soon as I recognize it in order to thwart my own reflexive tendency to lash back. Sometimes nature wins:
"Oh yeah? Well, you and your cocker spaniel, too!"
When I'm occasionally smarter, and return fire with butter instead of the always-tempting bunker buster, voila, the most amazing thing happens. Humanity returns to the ecosystem. Invariably, the person who wrote to assert my canine ancestry or to impugn my husband's masculinity is suddenly Aunt Bee extending a warm apple pie. No longer hostile, she offers gratitude for the response and apologizes for the nasty missive.
Not because she doesn't still disagree with whatever I wrote that initially set her off or because I'm so dadgum adorable but because we're no longer anonymous. We're just people fellow and fallible human beings tangled in the same sticky web we call Life while Technos is revealed as the cold-blooded provocateur he is.
In which spirit, and in gratitude to the e-mailer who went first, I'd like to begin the new year with an apology to those whom I've offended or hurt with careless words or poor judgment. I'm s-, sss-, soh … (I must be a guy, this is so hard) ((That's a joke.)) Sorry. I'm sorry. No, really. I am.
Onward, then, here's to health, prosperity and greater civility in the new year. And all you bloggers out there? I love you, man.