“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.