. . . do as the Romans do.
(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
When I was teaching middle school I would tell the students that good manners were the lubricant that kept society civil. Basically, the title of this musing means the same: wherever you find yourself, good manners help you.
Throughout my formative years my parents used this adage, with many others, to teach without giving long sermons. As I wander through my life they all come back to help explain what I see happening around me.
When I was almost thirteen, we moved to Italy where my brother and I were frequently admonished that “When in Rome. . .” to keep us from embarrassing ourselves, or our folks, with some outlandish behavior. They cautioned us to hold back and observe carefully so as to learn the preferred way of doing anything so as not to inadvertently offend our hosts. Good manners and not making a scene were some of their prime directives. This old saw said that succinctly.
Walt and I were recently on a delightful overseas vacation, which brought the title to mind several times. Driving on the left side of the road is the custom where we were visiting. Many of the people on our trip would refer to this as driving on the “wrong side,” and then emit a guilty little chuckle. Our guides tried to keep from wincing at this tired joke. It was the correct side for them. Each excursion would find someone commenting on how they “just adored” the accent of one of our hosts, or found it strange, funny, odd or difficult to understand, never thinking it was they who had the accent, not our host. At best this shows an insular or provincial attitude, at worst it is absolutely offensive. One guide attempted to avert these types of comments by saying, “This is my country. You have the accents, not me. We drive on the correct side of the road.” This was done with humor, but it is sad he felt the need to state it.
Familiarity is often comforting, but not necessarily the only correct way of handling things. This has nothing to do with giving up that which is morally right. Which side of the road you drive on is not an ethical dilemma but a pragmatic one. How one wields a knife and fork is just custom. One’s accent is just usage. Fit in and don’t make a scene. Or consider staying home.
When we take small children to our parents’ houses we tell them that while there they must do things the way grandparents want them done. That may mean not to touch the knick-knacks or how long they are expected to sit at the dinner table. Perhaps it defines how and where they may play in the back yard. None of these things affect their health or well-being, and so should be respected.
Likewise, when we send children to school, we expect them to comply with the rules, as long as those rules do not endanger them. We also have the privilege of expecting our house rules to govern the behavior of guests to our home. If yours is a home with no smoking, guests should refrain from smoking no matter how strong their addiction. If you expect voices to be modulated in your home, even young children should be taught to respect that and speak softly.
All of that should seem fairly obvious.
Ours is a transient society. Our founding fathers established a representative republic with the states having a degree of sovereignty in which to make the laws that would permit us to have a diversity of customs while having the power of a larger entity, the federal government, to protect us from international predators. That statement presumes a number of givens, which are being lost as earlier political discourse yields to current cultural waves. Some of this is due to the current popular sense of correctness and some to the dilution of historic concepts of who we are and from where we came that has been happening since the advent of the boomer generation. We so outnumbered the adults of our growing years that our childish hedonism changed the vector of society. One of the results is that in striving for personal gratification many never feel the urging of “When in Rome…” We see people who become disgruntled with where they are living for any of a number of reasons: Their health is affected by pollens in the air and they are advised to find a different climate. An industry moves and they are jobless. The current political classes raise taxes beyond what the individual is willing or able to pay. The people in these scenarios look around and find that if they move to a different state the problem will be solved. After all, that state has drier, pollen free air. The other state has lower unemployment rates. The next state has a lower tax rate. So they move.
They find the new state is different than home. Without thinking about why they had left or what had caused the conditions with which they had been dissatisfied, they begin changing things to more closely remember the old home.
Perhaps they move to a desert where they buy a home and then plant grass and flowers that produce the same pollen they are attempting to escape. They follow the company, which then finds the new political environment requires they recreate the business and the transient employee is left outside again. They vote for politicians with an insouciant and somewhat familiar patter who then pass the same types of laws that raise the cost of living to a level similar to what they had in the place they left. Some new comers are foreign nationals who want even greater changes to their new home than those who have come from a different state that is still internal to our country. Their craving for familiar surroundings, or politics, or language causes them to try to recreate the environment they fled.
This isn’t a plea to dismiss change. Some things need changing. Some things need preserving. Both require thought. We perceive a problem, then conceive a solution. The key here is to think about what our solution will spawn. The results that occur don’t effect just the transients, but all of the folks who had been contentedly making their lives in the “new” state. The “new” state is now no longer “Rome.” The established residents don’t understand what has happened to their home, and the new resident can’t understand where the charm that had enticed them to move there has gone. In reality, each of these types of changes takes more than one person. Sometimes the balance is changed by word of mouth drawing many independent people to the “new” state. Sometimes, more nefariously, the balance is tipped when a group with the sole intent of changing “Rome” away from what the base population had wanted finances the shift in the population. Regardless of the reason, the Visigoths have arrived. Rome will survive, but not as Roma.
The last word:
Why is the saying about Rome and not some other place? Because of a letter from St. Augustine to Januarius around 390AD:
Cum Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; cum hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi.
Sister W. Parsons translated this in 1951 in St. Augustine: Letters Volume 1 as:
When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here [Milan] I do not. Do you also follow the custom of whatever church you attend, if you do not want to give or receive scandal.
Januarius was Bishop of Naples at the time, and later canonized as a martyred saint.
On July 10, 1948, the average humidity in Phoenix Arizona was 19%. On July 10, 2013, the average humidity in Phoenix was 38%. Over the same time frame, the population increased from a little over 100,000 to about 1.5 million. Many of those people moved from the northeast to find a dry climate and escape pollen. Then they planted lawns and shrubs and watered them a lot.
Keep your sense of humor.