My parents loved to travel. Spending more than 20 years in the Air Force, they had ample opportunity to see many parts of the world. They translated that passion for new cultures into leading tours to foreign lands. Many of the people who signed on with them were my father’s parishioners. Some were dear friends from an earlier military post. Some started the trip as strangers but they inevitably became good friends.
My parents developed one requirement for their fellow travelers: that they follow The Pleasant Rule. Their expectation was that that folks would be Pleasant with one another. That seems like a low bar but it actually counts for a lot when coexisting with twenty others in the heat of India or the tensions of Soviet Russia. I suspect it’s only after leading a couple of trips that they realized the importance of being Pleasant.
It’s not a word we use much anymore, certainly not for anyone under the age of 40. I’ve heard the expression that someone is Pleasant to the eyes. But their rule did not have to do with physical appearance. The people they traveled with probably packed coordinating outfits with jewelry to match. They were well-kept. Like a prenuptial agreement, my folks urged people to sign on to a mandate that had to do with behavior. Consider an unpleasant look that stems from someone who is frustrated that their preferred hair products were confiscated when they went through security. Imagine the unpleasant look on a travel companion’s face who is frustrated that it takes forever for the group to be seated in a restaurant. The Pleasant Rule forbade an snippy exchange between group members the morning after a late hotel arrival the night before. Breakfast the next morning was something to endure not enjoy.
My parents knew that there are inevitable ups and downs to any travel excursion. When a couple dozen people travel together, you multiply the potential for frustration. So, during the orientation for one of their new trip opportunities, Jim and Katie Chapman articulated the need for folks to be Pleasant sojourners.
We may not talk about being Pleasant with each other so much today. But a related word comes to mind that connects with us more in our contemporary setting: civility. We have talked much in recent years about the slippery slope of diminished civility toward one another in this country. Leaders, neighbors, co-workers, and even family members lack civility toward one another. Common decency has been replaced with self-absorption. Why can’t others honor my needs first?
As the countdown to a presidential election accelerates I find myself yearning for words of sincerity. I watch for expressions of compassion. I think of my parents’ rule which, in hindsight, cuts to the quick of the matter: The Pleasant Rule. Imagine how palatable the political campaigning would be if folks in different political camps managed to be genuinely Pleasant with each other. Our stress level as citizens would go down. Even faux Pleasantness is better than the ugly name-calling that has become commonplace. But an understood part of being Pleasant is that it comes from within. To be Pleasant means we consider the comfort level of the person who is with us. It means that we are willing to communicate kindness to someone even when our own life is in upheaval. We see it when rivals agree to disagree, respecting each other for their stance. It is evidenced when we keep company with the most whiny group member for five hours in an airport when our flight keeps getting bumped on an icy day. The Psalmist may not have experienced flight delays but they seemed to understand the gift of people getting along when they didn’t have to: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
The Pleasant Rule doesn’t speak exclusively to groups of people who were brought together for a common journey, far away from what is familiar. It can be the guiding principle around the dinner table. That assumes that we sit down for dinner. That assumes that we put down our phones long enough to look one another in the eyes and talk at a deeper level. One who is Pleasant knows the importance of listening. One who is Pleasant understands that there’s much to be learned from the story of another. Someone following the Pleasant rule would understand that their words of kindness might be the only encouragement someone receives in an otherwise challenging life.
Out of fear of a virus, we’ve been holed away for months. We have begun to come out of our caves and mix with others. If we are the fortunate ones who have job security, comfortable homes, and healthy relationships, we have had the luxury of being able to focus on our own needs. It’s easy to be content in our own carefully controlled environment. Then we walk out into the world where tensions run high. Just ask people who work for minimum-wage at stores where they’ve had to ask people to wear masks. Those interactions have not been… Pleasant.
The Corona Virus has reminded us that we are all in this together. While we certainly are not hopping on airplanes to travel to foreign countries, we are sojourners who recognize that we need each other. We understand that others are counting on our care. Whether we have been on the receiving end of someone’s goodwill or served others sacrificially, we are walking on the face of this earth as common pilgrims. We are strangers thrown together by circumstance, geography, and family ties. Just as we no longer go anywhere without a mask, we need to carry The Pleasant Rule with us into these new settings. We smile at complete strangers underneath uncomfortable masks because we care.
The Pleasant Rule surfaces from a deep love for all people, those whose suitcases are filled with Tommy Bahama gear and those who have practical shoes and a walking stick. In the church we are called to model that deep love and respect for one another. As our church gathered anew after 23 weeks of being physically apart on Sundays, we rejoiced at being together. The natural expressions of hugs and handshakes, sharing coffee and conversation are not allowed presently. Singing and Sunday School are on hold. I grieve these losses too! But we have this great opportunity to look each other in the eyes, even if the rest of the face is covered, and speak words of encouragement. We may have to repeat our words because masks muffle our message! The easy reaction is to be irritated. But we must commit to gentleness, kindness, and compassion. We covenant together to live by The Pleasant Rule as we face fires, double hurricanes, earthquakes and an unprecedented pandemic. We may not be as perfect as Ward and June Cleaver appeared to be! But the one thing we can control in the chaos that seems to have broken loose is the way we treat others. Let’s choose to be…Pleasant!