If living is an art form—and I believe that living well certainly is—then the highest level of that art is what I call “grace.”
In religious terms, grace means having the favor of, making oneself pleasing to, or benefiting from the generosity of God. These are acceptable meanings, but not the subject of this discussion. Religious grace is a state that comes from, or is predicated on, or defined by the outside influence of the Almighty. Similarly, in archaic terms, a sovereign might grant a pensioner or a loyal servant grace along with some form of bounty. But again, I’m not talking about the grace that comes from outside.
A person of any religious or political stripe has grace, and can be considered gracious, if he or she adopts a particular set of values and their corresponding behaviors. So let me attempt to list them.
First of all, a gracious person is interested in and sympathetic toward others. He or she lives outside of him- or herself. Such a person, when approached, offers a smile; when asked for an opinion, offers encouragement and support. He or she cares about the impression made upon other people. More important, he or she wants other people to feel secure, comforted, and at ease. The gracious person creates an atmosphere of calm and contentment.
This is not to say that a person with grace has no inner life, or sacrifices everything for the people in his or her immediate vicinity, or never says “no” to a request. But any necessary “no” is always framed in terms of regret rather than righteousness. The protection that a gracious person puts in place around his or her inner life and personal substance is understated if not actually invisible. This is not deceit but an advanced form of minding one’s own business.
Second, and corollary to the first, the gracious person is generous. The old-fashioned word is “magnanimous.”1 When confronted with a direct appeal, he or she generally gives what is asked and a bit more. Or, if direct giving is not possible due to the state of his or her purse and other resources, the gracious person goes out of his or her way to offer other forms of help and aid. Once again, that giving or that aid may have limits, but they are generally invisible to the person receiving the help. At the very least, the gracious person makes time to listen to the request and, if help is not forthcoming, refrains from letting the supplicant feel bad about the asking. This again is a form of sympathetic treatment.
Third, the gracious person respects the freedom and personal agency of others. This is a delicate point, because it is so often overlooked in today’s communications. Offering respect in this case is a subtle negative: refraining from making assumptions about another person’s situation, motives, capabilities, or prospects. Just because someone is in a bad way and asking for help does not mean that he or she is unwilling, incapable, or lazy. The other person’s life is not a subject for debate and speculation. The other person’s story is his or hers alone to tell—or not. The gracious person respects personal boundaries—both in speaking and in imagination—just as he or she maintains his or her own boundaries and secrets. The gracious person trusts that others—barring direct evidence to the contrary—have abilities and prospects similar to his or her own. After all, the basis of respect is granting that others have an equal footing in this business of life.
Fourth, and corollary to all of the above, the gracious person is confident of and secure in his or her own situation, motives, capabilities, and prospects. To be confident means that a person has examined his or her own life and knows him- or herself at some depth.2 To be secure in life is to have control of one’s person and resources and to maintain a calm appreciation of what the future may hold. A person who is insecure or afraid cannot be—or, more generally, believes he or she cannot afford to be—generous, sympathetic, or respectful of others. A person who does not trust him- or herself is unlikely to extend a similar trust to other people.
Fifth, a person with grace generally leads a sober and thoughtful life. He or she knows that alcohol and drugs, loose talk, unrestrained behavior, reckless impulses, crude humor, and even excessive jocularity—all tending toward a loss of personal control and restraint—have the possibility to be damaging to oneself and to those nearby. Wit and a well-told joke are acceptable. Imprudence, impudence, and a generally sarcastic attitude are not.
Sixth, and finally, the gracious person maintains his or her balance. We think of a person who is physically graceful as moving in a controlled, purposeful, balanced manner, without sudden lunges, hesitations, missteps, or reversals. In the same way, the gracious person’s life proceeds in balance, with a sense of purpose and direction, and with forethought. It avoids both impulsive lunges and fearful retreats. The gracious, magnanimous person is superior to events, plots a life course focused on the long view, and remains steadfast, loyal, and calm in the face of both opportunity and adversity. He or she thinks before acting, and acts with precision and purpose.
All of these traits exist irrespective of any political views. A generous, thoughtful, sympathetic, and controlled person can exist in any political sphere—and even more so in times of disruption and confusion, which are merely opportunities to exercise these talents. Similarly, the life situation that allows a person to demonstrate grace is not dependent on wealth, education, intelligence, health, or other outward resources—although it is easier to maintain a gracious demeanor if one is not scrabbling for breadcrusts, ignorant of the world, dim in perception, or wracked with pain. Still, the true gift is to rise above these shortcomings.
I have been blessed in my life to know a number of gracious people. My mother was one, my late wife was another, and I cherish their memory. They both lived with a calmness of person and generosity of spirit that made the people around them feel both confident and secure. And that is something that can only come from the inside.
1. This is a direct combination of two Latin words, magnus, meaning “big,” and animus, meaning “spirit” or “soul.” Such a person is big-spirited.
2. It was written above the door to the oracle at Delphi: gnōthi seauton, “know thyself.” To understand the will of the gods, you must first understand your own situation, motives, capabilities, and prospects.