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The Cultural Warming of America

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A few years ago I was giving a talk on the human side of medicine to a large, excited audience at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. After the talk a surgeon came up to me and said that whenever they install a new piece of machinery in his part of the hospital, he manages to purchase a beautiful rug or a painting. I thought that was a brilliant maneuver.

Later I discovered a quote from the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. He said that for every invention that comes from science he would paint an angel. So, lately I've been referring to this maneuver as the Burne-Jones effect. Any of us could try it: Whenever you get a new machine at work or at home, match it with a piece of art or something beautiful. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money, but it does require imagination.

This idea of responding to the mechanistic style of our times with art and beauty is part of a larger project that I envision as the warming of culture. I am not anti-science or anti-technology. For years when asked to speak against some new piece of technology, I have refused. I am happy to live in the age of the computer and of medical science. But a philosophy of technology, a life defined largely by technology, is a cool life, a life of cool relationships, cool experiences and cool thoughts.

There's nothing wrong with cool, whether you mean the temperature or the style. But if cool gets in the way of warm, we individuals and the culture at large lose important values: connection, empathy, nostalgia, a strong sense of home and civility.

My wife and I recently watched the movie "Kate and Leopold," in which an elegant man (Hugh Jackman) falls through a gap in time and arrives in contemporary New York. It's a charming, romantic movie, and Leopold's most striking characteristics are his exceptional civility and grace. In the movie Leopold's charm seems to be focused on winning a woman, but I saw it as a challenge to a cool, contemporary, mechanistic culture.

I've been called romantic, and the word was meant as a criticism. But I'm in favor of a return to a warmer cultural climate, a world in which civility and manners guide us in our daily relationships. Yes, these things can be superficial, but surface care in the way we relate to each other could be the beginning of a deeper respect. I'm not sure we can get to the second without the first. I'm happy to be a romantic.

For 20 years I've been writing about the soul. I've notice that in history, whenever soul is cultivated, it generates a new kind of romanticism. Think of music of the 19th century, or the films of Merchant and Ivory or Masterpiece Theater. Romanticism is the atmosphere of a soulful life, and civility and gracefulness create a deeper style of living.

Some people would find the Masterpiece Theater image stuffy. I'm the son of a plumber, and it's going to take a lot to make me stuffy. I do think some of our problems would be solved if we would take care with our speech, especially treating our friends and adversaries with basic respect and showing that respect with civil manners. Today we seem to pride ourselves on being spontaneous and casual. Those are certainly virtues worth pursuing, but maybe they are compatible with manners and cultivated speech.

My model of civility is not really Hugh Jackman's Leopold, marvelous as he is, but my 98-year-old father, the plumber. He never learned the niceties of the English language. He loved baseball and tennis and could build a house from scratch. But he taught me with his example to show respect for all people--not just to think it, but to express it in the way you address another person.

Our democracy requires civility. Otherwise we won't listen to each other and discover how to bring our ideas and talents together for our mutual benefit.

While some seem to envision the 21st century as the 20th century on steroids, to use a zesty metaphor of our times, I hope for a warmer, more romantic century, in which we rediscover the importance of civility and beauty.