On Being a Nice Person

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In the past few weeks, in both my private life and in my practice, I have been involved in one way or another in the same unfortunate scenario.  It bothered me so much, that I am doing what I usually do when I am frustrated.  I write about it.

In said scenario, a nice person is accused of behavior that he or she would never think In the past few weeks, in both my private life and in my practice, I have been involved in one way or another in the same unfortunate scenario.  of doing.  Theft, indecent speech, acts of violence and a number of other unsavory acts have been laid at the door of someone who really had no connection to these things.  All accusers thought they were correct; they were not maliciously spreading slander.  They all knew the people they were accusing, yet the fact that they were decent people did not seem to make any difference.

All the accused were young people and they did not all react the same way.  One simply left the scene and now avoids certain people. She has become an angry young woman. Two more said that they didn’t think it was so smart to be a good person after all, because it just meant that you were fair game for bullies. It didn’t “pay”.  Yet there were two who said it was really “not fair” that they were accused of something they did not do, but that changing their ways and becoming “bad” only made the accuser and people like him, “win”.  Nevertheless, they were very upset.  These two were operating on a different level than the others. To them it’s a battle between good people and bad.  While this is a bit simplistic, it does give meaning to how they chose to behave.  It put me in mind of the opening lines of my favorite poem.

In IF, Rudyard Kipling writes:

If you can keep your head

While all about you are losing theirs

And blaming it on you

 

He goes on:       If you can trust yourself

When all men doubt you

Yet make allowance for their doubting too

 

 

 

The poem ends with:

Then yours is the earth

And everything that’s in it

What is more, you will be a man, my son.

 

Kipling is advising us on how to be a decent person.  Being self- assured is a big part of his formula for success.   Many think that he is talking about being a nice person. Not at all.  Here’s why.

Is a nice person willing to give his/her opinion (in a nice way, of course) when he knows it differs from that of the person to whom he is speaking?  Does a nice person refuse to do something when asked, even if it goes against his beliefs or values?  Does a nice person ever turn down an invitation?  If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then what we have here is really a people pleaser.  What I am talking about, on the other hand, is what Kipling was talking about and what in Yiddish is referred to as, “a mensch”. A decent person.

In case you had any doubts about it, being a mensch is not easy. It is also often maligned.  For example, in this country in particular, a decent person is often tainted with the designation of “frier”.  This makes him look the fool rather than the decent person s/he is.  Why is that?  Studies in human behavior show that people often are afraid of being made a fool.  The way many people choose to deal with that concern is to close themselves off to that possibility.  They become wary of anything or anyone who can make them feel small.   According to this world view, allowing one’s self to be a “frier” is a very frightening thing, to be avoided at all costs.  Seeing someone behave like a “frier” makes these folks either avoid him/her or ridicule them. By doing this, they keep themselves away from the dreaded title

When I think of the truly decent people who I have had the fortune of knowing, very few were in the “frier” category. And those who were, didn’t care. That’s my point.  When one decides that being a truly nice, decent person is important, s/he cannot expect the world to applaud or to even notice.  S/he must go into this with eyes open to the fact that much of the world is not like this and doesn’t want to be.  Which reminds me of an incident that first alerted me to this whole phenomenon.

Many years ago I got together with an old classmate.  Our lives had taken us to opposite sides of the US.  When we finally met, we spent a lot of time catching up.  When I inquired about a certain mutual friend whom I remembered fondly, she told me that she did not spend much time with her despite the fact that she lived nearby.  When I asked why she said, “I don’t know.  She’s too nice; she makes me feel bad about myself.”  Huh?!*

For the life of me I had no idea how to react to that statement.  My Orthodox, European upbringing did not leave room for such a thought.  But now it seems to have jumped into my memory bank to help me understand the issue at hand.  If someone is nice, then why not just accept that?  Some of us have a hard time dealing with truly good, nice people because they allow themselves to be open to vulnerability, which scares some of us to death.  We are willing to accuse them of wrongdoing rather than to better examine evidence because, we say to ourselves, “they can’t be that nice.” At this point it is up to the accused to decide which world view s/he wishes to adopt.

What Kipling is saying and what parents may wish to explore with their children, is that you don’t have to be a sap to be nice.  Life means that despite your niceness, not everyone will treat you in kind or even be able to accept you as you are.  No need to get upset about it. That’s just the way it is.  You keep on doing your thing.

In other words, a mensch is a nice person with a spine.

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