Number 135 - June 2013
In this issue:
Sunday, June 9, is the beginning of Men's Wisdom Council at Rowe, Massachusetts. If you're procrastinating or on the fence, now's the time to act. I won't annoy you with a bunch of links - just this one: http://rowecenter.org/pages.php?name=MWC. M
The little tot was sitting in circle time at
daycare. When things got a little rambunctious, she
raised her hand, stuck out her index finger, moved her
arm up and down, and admonished loudly, "Beeee nice."
That's a nice little word, "nice." The word appears on many lists admonishing students not to overuse it, and not to substitute it for a more accurate word. A nice peach? How about a tasty peach? A nice day? How about a sunny day, or a warm and sunny day? And so on. And scholars point out the "nice" originally meant "foolish" and that it came from a Latin word nescius, meaning "ignorant."
Ah, but the little girl didn't know all that. She probably didn't know the standard meanings like "pleasant," or "kind", or "friendly." The only thing she knew was that "nice" is used to describe someone who isn't misbehaving.
Our religious and philosophical traditions have longer lists of admonitions against misbehaving. The Ten Commandments are known with varying emphasis in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhism has its Eightfold Path, in which there are rules against lying, harsh speech, foolish speech, stealing, killing, improper sex, and use of intoxicants. The admonitions are repeated in the Five Precepts, to which are added a few more just for monks and monks-in-training. Every religion has its set of multiple rules (and interpretations of them) attending to most aspects of our lives.
Jesus simplified everything with the Great Commandment: love God with heart, soul, and mind; and love one's neighbor as oneself. Even that was open to interpretation: What is love? Who is my neighbor?
One way that "Be nice" is different from other lists of mostly thou-shalt-nots is that it asks to us to be something, not to do or avoid doing a bunch of things. In other words, it challenges us to know who we are and decide who we want to be.
So we come back to our little tot in circle time. Leaving aside the possibility that she was on some kind of baby power trip, she got her message out loud and clear. Not much interpretation needed here. We know what "being nice" looks and feels like. We could add all sorts of specific, juicy instances that would satisfy a picky English teacher: be kind, be compassionate, don't take things away from people (life, property, good feelings), and so on. But if you run all this juice through a distiller, what comes out is "Be nice."
What would it look like if we were nice to every person, every animal, every thing? This doesn't mean not standing up for ourselves - we have to be nice to ourselves, too. And it doesn't mean we'd be perfect at being nice all the time, or that we'd be nice to those trying to do us harm. (Although it may be possible to be nice to people while defending ourselves from their actions.)
Think being nice is a copout for weaklings? We might give it a try and see how hard it can be. And we can expect some paradoxes and iffy situations. Would it be "nice" to remain silent when someone is being an utter asshole? Or would a harsh word - aimed at the behavior, not the person - be the "nice" thing to do? Would it be "nice" to just take verbal abuse from a surly clerk, or would it be "nice" - to ourself and to the clerk (maybe eventually) to ask politely to see his supervisor?
Knowing how, when, and where to be nice can be tricky. It might even take practice. But the tot's basic admonition might be a - um - nice place to start. M