Back in September, I went home to Chicago for a weekend to celebrate (and officiate, imagine that!) one of my best friend’s wedding. While I was there, I started talking with my other best friend (yes: I have two. They’re literally the best people. And I do wake up thankful every day for the fact that I can call them both “friend”) about a conversation I had with my husband.
I’m not sure how exactly this topic arose, some discussion about our compatibilities and why we have been together so long, but my husband mentioned that he is a “nice” person, whereas I am a “kind” person. So, on the surface, or until people really get to know us, my husband is the one who seems approachable, friendly, sympathetic, and all things “nice;” On the other hand, I’ve often been told that people are at first intimidated by me, that I seem intense, quiet, and distant, which they (mis)take for judgmental or cold. We learned something interesting about this when, years ago, we were both working at a book store. Once people got to know both of us individually, and then as a couple, we noticed they would go to him to ask for something, because they knew he would be nice about it, but what they were asking for was often something that I would need to do (because they knew I would probably do it, they just didn’t want to ask me… I don’t suppose my sarcasm helped those situations.)
Anyway, I was talking to my friend about this and she seemed not only to agree, but to think that it made a lot of sense. That it created some kind of balance. The conversation has had me thinking about these concepts of kindness and niceness; whether most people tend to be one or the other, and how often is it both? (We all know some people who are definitely neither.) I can think of another friend who is both nice and kind, seemingly as a default; she is one of the most decent people I have ever met. But that seems to me to be truly rare. And I wonder why this is. Does it leave us too vulnerable? Is it too exhausting? Are we too often rebuffed or abused if we are always nice and kind? Do people think this is “fake”?
I do try to be nice, meaning I often find that it takes some effort; but I don’t feel the same about kindness. I don’t often find myself trying to be kind. For me, the “public” nature of niceness, things like friendliness and openness, and even looking people in the eye, takes work. I’ve begun to wonder if that is a part of my introverted personality and something that I can switch “off” in certain scenarios. With my students, for example, I turn “on” in a significant way, and become much more extroverted. On the other hand, kindness, I think, seems to be a deeper and less mutable part of me. I’m probably sometimes too empathetic, and getting even more so as I age, if I’m being honest. There are any number of times that I can recall trying to make someone else’s day or time or experience a little bit better, even at the expense to my own welfare. If I have something and you need it, I’m going to give it to you. If you need a ride or help moving or whatever, and it’s my only day off in 10 days, I’m still going to be there. If someone I don’t know passes away and I’m asked to the wake by a colleague or mutual friend, I usually end up going (even though this has always felt extremely awkward to me). Where does kindness come from? Niceness? Are they both learned traits? Do we start with certain degrees of each and then expand or contract depending on our own experiences?
Recently, I read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, What Happened, and she shares some similar insights into this question. She seems, like me, to struggle sometimes to project the image of “niceness” and empathy, while internally she is a deeply compassionate and concerned person. This might be one of the reasons I have always admired her beyond the work she has done, and beyond her incredible work ethic and rich knowledge about so many complex issues. Instead, I respect her simply due to this connection with another person of a similar type. Unlike me, Clinton is a religious person. And I pondered that, too. Where do niceness and kindness and morality all come together? There seems to be some kind of “golden rule” at the center of most major religions, though I would never agree that one must be religious in order to be a moral or ethical person. Still, I’ve read the Christian bible a number of times and a verse comes to mind:
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Somehow this passage speaks to me about the truth and value of kindness. This is not to say that the passage is instructing us away from niceness–not at all. But, what I see is that contrast between speaking and doing. Between thinking and acting. Between sympathizing and empathizing. To me, the formers often apply to the nice person. A shoulder, a conversation, and even an acknowledgement of your suffering; all of these are to be found in the nice person. But the kind person is the one who keeps his heart open in order to act. The kind person loves by example, by commitment, and by following through on what is needed most, when it is needed most, and especially, without design or expectation for reward or reciprocity.
Nice is the person who feels bad when a friend’s car breaks down or when they see a stranger caught in the rain. Kind is the person who doesn’t mind when his day is disrupted by that friend in need or who offers his umbrella to the stranger.
When mother used to say, “be nice,” to the kid everyone picked on, she meant stop picking on him. When Ellen DeGeneres ends her talk show every day with, “be kind,” she means be the sort of person who never would have thought about hurting that kid in the first place.
For some of us, it is easier, or more natural, to be one or the other. I guess I’m trying to learn how to be both.