As a society we are increasingly focused on the surface of things. In some ways we simply fulfill what Europeans have accused us of for many years: a shallowness born of a modern culture. In other ways our attention is in constant motion as we live in a hyperkinetic environment abuzz with images, slogans, feeds, selfies, snaps and games.
It seems everything is done quickly, including the loss of temper and patience. We can be a cranky bunch.
I had a visit from a Chautauquan, a property owner, who has been coming to Chautauqua for almost 40 years. Among the things he wanted to talk about was his observation that the fabric of Chautauqua was tearing. One example he cited was his encounter with a father and young boy riding their bikes down the brick walk, despite the signage declaring that practice a no-no. The father passed him before he could react. So he spoke to the young boy about not riding on the brick walk. Whereupon the father spun back and declared in obscene terms that he should mind his own business.
My visitor’s takeaway from that experience and others about which he was less specific was that Chautauqua was changing. He thought the people who were coming now somehow didn’t embrace the ethos of the place.
I am certain there are people who enter these gates who are not inclined to the active civility we seek in our assembly. I also know the condition exists in some people who have been coming for their whole lives and whose incivility to those they perceive as the “other” is a near daily occurrence.
And yet, day in and day out I witness acts of generosity and kindness between complete strangers in small and large ways. In fact, I strongly believe the vast majority of people who come through these gates understand there is a very different proposition at play here. One in which they are asked to find their higher selves and to assume that status of the other people with whom they share this space.
And all of us need to be aware of and actively combat our hypervigilant sensitivity that talk shows, 24/7 punditry and the coarseness of our political dialogue sows into the daily discourse of life.
That is not to say that we should be less critical in our thinking. Or that we should be passively accepting of offensive behavior and toxic ideologies. We should not. Indeed, I hope one of the by-products of time at Chautauqua is the ability to be angry and judgmental without being offensive and cruel.
The fabric of Chautauqua isn’t a cloak adopted upon entry. It is a tapestry in the making. Day by day. Its threads are assembled by acts large and small. It is art, in that it is creative and not a product of regulation. But rather expressive of a sense of purpose in being here.
Chautauqua is neither utopia nor a fiction. This is a very real place with deep historical and traditional roots that continue to feed the assembly now 143 years into the practice. The way we gather — how we welcome people to these grounds, how we honor and respect those who gather here — is a human activity. When we do it well we demonstrate some of the best of what it means to be human.