When I was growing up, I was the oldest of three siblings. Sibling rivalry was certainly no stranger in my family. My sister was different than me and we were both different from our brother. We each had our own personalities and we responded to things differently. Inevitably, this meant that there were times when we had sibling fights. While my brother was six years younger than me, my sister and I were separated only by three years. She and I had different learning disabilities. In fact, mine was not diagnosed until much later in my lifetime. These differences cast the illusion that I was “gifted” in ways she was not, and this illusion led to comparisons from the teachers who had taught both of us. “Heather isn’t the same as Tim,” they’d say. Looking back, it’s obvious that we weren’t the same. We were different people and our brains were wired differently. These kinds of comparisons, the proximities of our ages, and the differences in the ways boys and girls were treated as children in the 80s led to some pretty heated feuds over some decidedly petty catalysts. “She used MY cup!” I would tell my parents. “He called me stupid!” my sister would tell them in her defense. If you have kids in your life, or you remember being a kid yourself, then you know the whole routine. When they were tired of hearing our bickering, our parents finally shouted in frustration, “Would you two just be nice to each other?”
Be nice. We hear that recommendation all the time. Niceness is highly regarded in our 21st century American society. “She’s the nicest lady I’ve ever met!” “He’s a genuinely nice guy.” “The officer was nice and he didn’t give me a citation.” “It was so nice of her to hold the door for me on my way in the store.” If someone says something like that to you, then you probably think highly of the person being described as “nice.” But would it rock your whole world if I told you that we shouldn’t really strive to be nice? Even though it’s probably not nice of me to say (get it?), niceness is overrated and we should instead focus our efforts somewhere else.
Now you might be thinking, “but Father Tim, what’s wrong with being nice? I like it when people are nice to me!” I certainly understand. And I hate to yell you this, but if you like it when people are nice to you, you’re wrong. Ok, I’m guessing I’ve got you all riled up now. What on earth could I possibly be talking about? Niceness is ingrained in the American psyche! And I’m here to tell you that niceness is not that great. It’s kindness that is much more important. There is a difference between being nice and being kind, and I argue that it’s much more virtuous to be kind than it is to be nice.
Niceness is surface level and it is self-serving. If I do something to be nice, then I’m doing it to make myself feel better. If, on the other hand, I do something because I truly care for others, then I am being kind. And that’s the difference. In the example of sibling rivalry, if I let my sister use my favorite cup because I wanted to look good to my parents, perhaps convincing them to buy me that Gameboy I’d been wanting for a while, then I was being nice. But if I had let my sister use my cup because her cup was missing and I had two, then I was being kind. If we think about a woman holding a door open, if she did it because she genuinely wanted to help another person, then she was kind. If she did it because she wanted to look like a good person, then she was being nice. See the difference?
Do you remember that old television show “Leave it to Beaver”? No, I’m not old enough to have watched this show when it orignially aired, but I do remember watching reruns as a child. On the show, Wally Cleaver had a friend named Eddie Haskell. Eddie made a habit of putting on a show. When adults were present, he kept a clean profile. He spoke eloquently, minded his manners, and demonstrated respect. But when only the kids were around, he was often mean. He was a schemer and a trouble-maker. “Don’t be an Eddie Haskell!” people used to say. That’s because Eddie’s behavior around the adults was nice. Had Eddie been a kind person rather than a nice person, then he would have treated everyone the same regardless of who all was present.
People who are kind are giving of themselves because they care. They also are able to set healthy boundaries and not feel bad about it. And even though it seems contradictory, a kind person can offer constructive feedback in a way that is truthful and helpful. A boss who says, “You did a great job!” only to go back, undo everything, and then redo all the work is being nice, because she doesn’t want to hurt her employee’s feelings. This is done at a great cost to the business and the boss’s own time. But a boss who says, “that isn’t the way it needs to be done. Here, let me show you,” is being kind. Maybe the employee’s feelings might be a little hurt in the second example, but in the long run everyone will learn and grow from the experience. It isn’t kind to spare someone’s feelings when you are simply denying them an opportunity to grow. Think of a dating couple. It isn’t kind for one person to allow the date to go further than they are comfortable simply because the other person’s feelings might be hurt if the date doesn’t progress. And if one person in a relationship realizes things are not working out, it is far kinder to break things off and allow the healing to begin rather than it would be to string the other person along.
When we’re kind, we’re kind because we feel compelled to do the right thing. When we’re nice, we’re nice because we think that’s what society expects. When we’re kind, we’re kind because we care about other people. When we’re nice, we’re nice because we might get something out of it in return. When we’re kind, we’re kind to people because we respect their human dignity. When we’re nice, we’re nice to people we perceive to have influence and prestige and we want to impress them. When we’re kind, we’re kind even when people don’t like us. When we’re nice, we’re nice so that people will like us more. Do these examples make sense to you? I know it’s a strange concept to dissect. Especially because we’ve been conditioned to think of niceness and kindness as synonyms. But in reality, they are not synonyms. Kindness is much more important than niceness.
It is virtuous to be kind but it is not virtuous to be nice. It is very much in line with the teachings of Jesus if we are truthful, if we set and protect our own boundaries, and if we do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. It is ok to be kind, even when being nice might spare someone’s feelings in the moment. I’m sure there are times in your life when someone spoke an unpleasant truth to you, and it hurt when it happened. But in the long run, their kindness was much more helpful to you than it would have been had they simply been nice in the moment instead. Don’t be nice. Instead, be kind.