Making nice

17 Aug

“You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.” – Witch, Into the Woods

I’m a pretty introspective person. Maybe too introspective, which leads to a lot of second-guessing. Two of my favorite questions are, “Am I a nice person?” and “Am I a good person?” These are useless questions, and my speculations are meaningless, but I can’t stop asking them. “Good” and “nice” are relative terms. Besides, does it matter what I think about myself, if “good” and “nice” reflect my interactions with other people? Thinking I’m nice means nothing if everyone else thinks I’m an asshole. The same goes for thinking I’m a jerkface.

Sometimes I do think I’m nice. I genuinely care for people. I try to treat everyone with kindness. But this is what I come back to—is the empathy I feel for others a genuine trait or the result of Jewish guilt? (It doesn’t have to be Jewish, but it is.) When I see someone hurting, I hurt, too, but the unspoken feeling is, “I could have done something to help.” And I want to make that person feel better, because, fuck, I really should have helped them avoid feeling shitty in the first place. Logically, I know I’m not responsible for other people’s pain, but there is definitely some twinge of regret that gets me every time.

Is that where being nice comes from? It doesn’t seem right to me. I want to be a nice person because niceness is an inherent trait, not out of some sense of guilt or obligation. But I also think I’m probably being too hard on myself. We’re selfish creatures by nature. We’d all probably do crappier things if it weren’t for laws and social mores. So if I do nice things because I’d feel guilty otherwise, or because I somehow feel retroactive guilt over another person’s suffering, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Self-motivated empathy isn’t necessarily any cheaper than a more innate feeling of responsibility toward others.

I go back and forth on this. And it’s one of those things I obsess over that seems normal to me, because I have no sense of how often other people think about it.

But this is all abstract. Let’s look at an example. Offering a friend a ride is a nice thing to do. And why do we offer our friends rides? Because we are concerned about them, or because we are concerned about how they’ll feel if we don’t, or because we have nothing else to do and it feels like a dick move not to. For me, it is some combination of the three—a care for others mingled with anxiety over others’ perception of me, and a vague sense of, “That’s just what you do.” It’s not about congratulating myself on a job well done so much as the need to be validated and appreciated by others. I think that’s normal. I think it’s also somehow selfish.

Sometimes I think I’m nice, but I don’t often think I’m good—in part, because the dichotomy of “good” and “bad” is so silly. But also because, in my mind, goodness does necessitate a constant and genuine desire to make the world a better place. People who are truly good, if they do exist, were born that way. And while I’ve offered friends rides (see above!), I’ve never volunteered at a refugee camp in Africa, or participated in a clean-up effort after a natural disaster, or cooked meals for the homeless.

To be clear, I don’t think that not doing these things makes me a bad person either. I think it makes me average. Niceness aside, when it comes to “good” and “bad,” I’d say most people fall somewhere in the middle. Which is not to say we do bad things—I’ve never shot a man in Reno, to watch him die or for any other reason—but I don’t do a whole lot of good things either. I’m neutral. I’m nice, mostly, but I’m neutral.

Why is it so important for me to keep asking? I wish I could answer that. And for the record, I don’t think questioning my niceness or goodness makes me any better of a person! (Ugh, it might actually make me worse.) It’s just something I think about, a lot, when by my own admission, it doesn’t really matter. This is quite possibly just the way that humans work—we are flawed, and we try to be better, and that itself is a good thing. There are no superheroes, or to borrow from Tony Kushner, there are no angels in America. Sometimes I just focus on that, because it’s a comforting thought. It’s, you know, nice.

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2 Responses to “Making nice”

  1. Anna Peitzman August 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Introspection? Second guessing? Oh how I can relate.

    I believe “good” and “nice” are by their nature very relative terms, but that this does not strip away their meaning and significance to you and the people you interact with on a daily basis. It makes perfect sense to me (of course, I’m coming from a similar perspective and have given the concept a bit of thought myself) that you would keep checking in with yourself to see whether or not you believe that you are “good” or “nice”.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the source of niceness. I’m pretty confident that complete altruism is a fallacy and that doing a nice deed rarely, if ever, is done out of selflessness. You talked about giving someone a ride as an example of niceness. People want to do “nice” things for other people possibly in part because it gives them that warm bubbly feeling that vindicates their feeling that hey, they are nice! There’s no way to completely detach yourself from your cultural background and how you’ve learned your entire life to behave around people. If you did not have those remorseful feelings (when you see someone sad or refuse to give someone a ride) to some degree, you would then be labeled “abnormal” or sociopathic or some other term that would leave you feeling demeaned (if only you were a real boy). I also think that there is no way to detach yourself completely from your own motives and feelings- if you are making efforts that help a few or a large group of people, there is still some need that that action is satisfying within yourself.

    If the meaning of “nice” and/or “good” is based around cultural standards and we have to learn these things growing up, a constant and genuine desire to make the world a better place is relative as well. How is it determined that one person contains these desires consistently in their psyche? Is that based solely on their actions maintaining consistency, or a self report of those feelings? The various activities you listed that make someone “good” are, again, so culturally determined. However, I don’t believe that this takes away from their importance. In fact, I think that this cultural significance is what creates the importance on an individual level. I don’t think there’s mutual exclusivity when it comes to your feelings of empathy and guilt for other people being genuine (inherent) or as a result of your heritage; instead, part of what makes those feelings genuine (or valid?) is that the background that you come from informs who you are as a person. I guess that makes discussions of niceness and what is “good” or “evil” (which are, as you mentioned, silly) sort of pointless and irrelevant because if who you are and what you feel is validated, it doesn’t necessarily matter if that makes it “nice” or “good. Except that they are important to us (individually and socially) and we spend lots of time, effort, and money to decide how to interact with each other and what is acceptable or what should be punished.

    If your comforting thought that we are all flawed and try to be better (which I take to mean that with the exception of the “abnormal”, we are mostly coming from a similar place) is just a comforting thought, then it’s one that at least I share. I think that assessment of people is pretty accurate- we never have all of the answers on how to behave “correctly” in our world/culture and are probably constantly running into situations where we course correct when presented with either negative or positive responses to our actions. I completely agree that without the social mores and laws that we have, people would probably do a lot more things that we believe now to be “bad”. A certain degree of selfishness is not a “bad” thing but rather an inevitable thing and part of the human condition, though of course there is a part of me that is feeling guilty for typing this even before the sentence is finished.

    Reading this over, I have to entertain the notion that my entire post has been arguing pretty hard for the nurture side of the nature/nurture argument. It’s funny because I’ve always come from the perspective that there’s a relatively even balance between the two. I guess years of cultural anthropological training has influenced more than I knew, at least for this specific topic.

    PS- I was inspired to start making my presence known 🙂

    • Louis Peitzman August 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      Excellent, insightful comment, Anna. Please continue to make your presence known!

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