In 1982, sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the “broken window theory” in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, suggesting that when small acts of vandalism are ignored, such activities proliferate. They wrote: “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”
Note that it doesn’t speak to punishing the culprits, but only to repairing the damage in order to discourage like behavior. At its core, the theory reflected a long-established common sense approach to creating environments that reflect human dignity and elicit respect, and it thereby follows that dropping a gum wrapper in an immaculate hotel lobby would be far less likely than in a trash-strewn alley, no matter who was passing through.
Certainly, the theory itself and its applications have been fiercely discussed over the years, but at heart its message is that higher standards encourage better outcomes. For our purposes here, though, we are less concerned with civic strategies than we are with our own homes, workplaces, and other humble fronts on which we can raise the bar for those we love.
It should go without saying that whatever we might wish to preach to others must first be practiced silently, consistently, and with joy. Keeping our final destiny in view, whatever priorities we establish must primarily facilitate holiness and create avenues to God, for we know that insincere (or self-serving) standards usually alienate those we seek to help. Authentic charity is the only perpetually-defensible standard, and it must be meted out with patience, rolled in kindness, and salted down with humor.
Where can we apply the concept? Reverence before the Blessed Sacrament is a great start, whether in Mass or during the occasional visit. Our little ones, like puppies, may roll and cavort, but they eventually grasp that this space is like no other — even if it takes years. Thoughtful speech, likewise, discouraging judgment, gossip, or vulgarity. Reasonable table manners, deference to elders, self-control during play, honesty in speech, forbearance in the face of difficulties, and creative gestures of assistance to those in need gradually make their mark — despite the seeming obtuseness of young people or lack of acknowledgement from peers. Honestly, only as I age do I really understand what so many of these actions I witnessed since childhood required — and cost. Virtue, properly done, is often an arduous, narrow path.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed at the growing level of chaos and depravity around us, but those problems have not been dropped into our laps to solve. We have only to keep our eyes on two things: the Tabernacle, wherein Perfect Charity abides, and on those we love, who will benefit from that charity distributed through even our smallest actions. My late recognition of those quiet gifts offered by many dedicated souls over long decades has come despite a shabby memory, the distance of time and space, and a lack of receptivity at the time they were displayed. Grace indeed is the catalyst for a renewed memory and meaningful insights. Someone has been praying for me, slow learner that I am!
As Catholics we know that community facilitates communion, and love-laden actions have the power to chip away at the self-absorption of our age. As Lent begins, let us not only take to heart the broken window theory, but also spend time polishing the replacement glass, which will help all of us to see more clearly what needs to be done next.
Anchor columnist Genevieve Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius.typepad.com.