The Trap of Cordiality

The Trap of Cordiality

“Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment,” said Scout in the classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.[1] Scout’s description gave me pause. In our crass and quarrelsome culture, a little respect and good manners might go a long way. We need some good old-fashion cordiality.

But are there unintended consequences among polite types of people? I thought of religious circles or Christian families that strive to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control–under control at all times. Courteous detachment could be the kind of cordiality that keeps others at arm’s length.

Have you ever experienced that? I have. Maybe I’ve even done it to others!

Illustration depicting cutout printed letters arranged to form the words think before you speak.

In Marilynne Robinson’s moving story, Home, Jack, the black sheep of the family comes home to his dying father after twenty years. The father, a retired pastor, works hard to say all the right things, to give the benefit of the doubt, to believe the best, but there remains unimaginable tension in the atmosphere. The prodigal son is a sin-sick soul, looking for restoration. He wants to believe he can be a good man. The father wants him to “get saved.” They resort to polite conversation at first, bottling up their history of hurt and disappointment.

Deep wounds form when cordiality prevents real connection—maybe even more so than an outright fight.

Glory, the younger daughter in the story, has also returned to care for her father’s basic needs. She too is longing for healing within the family. She loves her wayward brother, Jack. All the other siblings seem to have perfect lives.

“(Glory’s) father told his children to pray for patience, for courage, for kindness, for clarity, for trust, for gratitude. Those prayers will be answered, he said. Others may not be…So she prayed again for patience, for tact, for understanding—for every virtue that might keep her safe from conflicts that would be sure to leave her wounded, every virtue that might at least help her preserve an appearance of dignity, for heaven’s sake. She did wonder what the neighbors thought…”[2]

Young lonely woman sitting in glass jarSafe from conflict…the appearance of dignity…what will the neighbors say?

I have come to believe these fears are the worse kind of trap for people of faith.

We persevere through pain and tension, never allowing the crisis to happen, and think we’re suffering like Christ. Perhaps some of it is. But clearly, some of it is not. Honest conflict often brings a turning point. Yet we instinctively pull back from the brink and return to cordiality.

Let’s face it…honest talk is challenging.

Couple after an argument look in different directionsC.S. Lewis wrote, “Granted the quarrel, did you fight fair? Or did we not quite unknowingly falsify the whole issue? Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? … Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in…not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us, but because they have long known it only too well… It needs surgery, which they know we will never face. And so we win, by cheating. But the unfairness is very deeply felt.”[3]

And that’s not the worst of it. Self-preservation in human relationships, sometimes leads to the same pattern with God.

Портрет пианисткиIn the story, Glory prays for patience. “She knew that was not an honest prayer…the right prayer would have been Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would be my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse.”[4] Yet she resorts to praying for patience, stuffing away the honest feelings of her struggle.

Are your prayers too polite, formal, or rote?

At one point in the story, the father asks Jack to say grace before they eat. Reluctantly, Jack rattles off, “For all we are about to receive, help us to be truly thankful. Amen.” The father responds to his son’s empty prayer saying, “(In) prayer, you know, you open up your thoughts, and then you can get a clear look at them. No point trying to hide anything…Prayer is a discipline in truthfulness, in honesty.”[5]

As the novel develops, real exchanges begin to happen. Still the characters’ unspoken reserve creates misunderstanding. They miss important points of contact.

It’s a wrenching and beautiful story to read. My heart ached for both the soul-weary son and the broken-hearted father…

photo“(The father) took Jack’s hand and moved it gently toward himself, so he could study the face Jack would have hidden from him. ‘Yes,’ he said, “here you are.’ He laid the hand against his chest. ‘You feel that heart in there? My life became your life, like lighting one candle from another. Isn’t that a mystery? I’ve thought about it many times. And yet you always did the opposite of what I hope for, the exact opposite. So I tried not to hope for anything at all, except that we wouldn’t lose you. So of course we did. That was the one hope I couldn’t put aside.’ Jack withdrew his hand…”[6]

I’m not saying that kindness, patience, and self-control don’t matter in relationships. They do. But they must never supersede real communication and connection. In difficult situations, we can humble ourselves, ask for courage and wisdom, and enter the fray. At the very least, we can get real with God.

Can you relate? Share your comment below.


[1] To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, page 6. Emphasis mine.

[2] Home, by Marilynne Robinson, page 69.

[3] Reflections on the Psalms, by C.S. Lewis, page 14.

[4] Home, page 69.

[5] Home, page 132.

[6] Home, page 115-116.


  1. Sue,
    It seems, too often, the regret comes, not with what we say, but with what we didn’t say. I’m not known for my cordiality and that’s a blessing. I’ve made mistakes though. When my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, I tippy toed around any conversations having to do with how he really was feeling. Was he afraid? Were there things I wanted to talk to him about before he died? Amends to be made? Were there questions I had put off for a lifetime? Were there things we had to make peace about? Did he need me to listen? He died 6 months later and these are the regrets I have. Sometimes a straight up, no holes barred conversation can be the only healing to be had.
    Diane Krach RockyRiver, Oh

  2. Oh funny, you were in my dream last night but apparently I was in yours! This is now the third push I’ve had this week to have a difficult (actually not so when you finally let out all the honesty — it’s much harder to keep that all in) conversation. Not only do I need to say it but they need to hear it. So enter the fray with wisdom I shall. Thank you.

    • That’s so crazy Tricia. But God does speak now one way now another so we can confirm it’s really Him! Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is truth the cuts through religiousness. I love your voice Susan. Thank you!

    • Thanks Pam! I think it’s hard in human relationship any way you slice it. But it’s part of maturing–this balance of honesty and love that Jesus mastered in the way he dealt with others. “You will deny me three times…” He said bluntly to Peter, and yet, He also said, “Peter you are the rock…”

  4. dear Susan, what a timely and beautiful writing about the downside of cordiality when a more open, frank and loving conversation is what the occasion needed. I found that there are certain circles of people, sometimes wealthy but sometimes highly educated but of humble means…., that think it a virtue to be cool, composed and distant instead of taking the chance of being genuinely warm and honest. Maintaining the chilly vacuum and cold of a cordial conversation when a party to the conversation has a heart that is breaking is a form of abuse…especially if it is the child that needs the plain spoken reassurance of a parent’s love. its a tragedy when both sides mean well, but both are trapped in a dance of cordial, proper and seemingly sincere behaviors that maintain the chasm between the hearts. Ive been there, seen it, felt it and thank goodness don’t have to deal with it too often. The older I get, the less patience I have with “the dance” of cold social propriety when it has no place in family or friendships. I think the Queen of England is the only one I’d give a pass to on it. Thanks for shedding some light on the harm. love you and your loving heart, janet

    • Janet,
      You’ve said it perfectly! Except, I don’t think I would give even the Queen a pass! Her cold propriety with Diana was very wounding as portrayed in the movie THE QUEEN with Helen Mirren. Thanks for your great thoughts!

  5. Hi Susan,

    I thought the book you are referring to was “Gideon”..nonetheless I agree that sometimes it is hard to go beyond cordiality because of fear. Differences in religious beliefs can cause huge chasms in relationships. My father asked me to lie about my beliefs to my mother on her death bed, so that she would die happy. I did not. I believe she is happy now, and knows that I am going to be okay.

    • Hey Renon,
      Marilynne Robinson has written a sort of triology (not technically) that started with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel GILEAD. My favorite book next to the Bible. It’s a story told by the main character, John Ames, a retired pastor who has a younger wife and son. He is older and is dying. The book is Ames’ long letter to his son, telling him of the wonder of existence and about his life. He basically wants his young son to know who he was when the boy grows up. Some of the most beautiful writing ever! John Ames’ fears that after he is gone, his wife will fall for Jack, the prodigal son of his best friend who has just returned home after 20 years. LILA is the second book and it tells the story from the point of view of the young wife. HOME is the same story from the point of view of Jack. The three together paint a rich landscape of love, forgiveness, the fatherhood of God, the wonder of existence, the difficulty of human relationships, a parent’s agony, and so much more. But, I’d start with GILEAD as it lays the foundation for the other two novels. Incredible writing!