Four middle aged men have met up at a party and are discussing their respective daughters, who all went to the same school but are now grown up:
“Mary is doing well with her medical training, and she’s planning to go into oncology.”
“Jean has just been promoted in the company she works for.”
“Alison is off to Africa for the small charity she runs.”
“Debbie hasn’t decided what to do, but she’s grown into an extremely nice person.”
We all know they’re not just passing the time, but using their children for a bit of one-up-manship. And Debbie’s father got nowhere at all.
There is no premium on being ‘nice’.
But there should be.
In the modern world – and probably the ancient world for that matter – a lot of weight is given to worldly achievements. We want to become rich, important and famous and we want our children to accomplish these things, too.
Or we want them to do good and to be seen to be doing good.
It doesn’t matter so much what activity they achieve in, as long as they achieve something.
We say we seek this because it will make them happy, but I am not so sure. I think it makes us, the parents, feel good. Other things might, in fact, make them equally – or more – happy.
And we pay much less attention – certainly when discussing them with others – to what kind of person they are.
Do they have good values? Are they kind? Do they actively do what they can to help others? Are they nice?
And what does this mean in practice?
They will blush to read it (if they do), but both my daughter and my daughter-in-law are very nice people. (They are lots of other things as well, but that’s not the point here.) This is important to me, but it is hard to explain to other people.
There are numerous examples of niceness from people from all walks of life, but you don’t always hear about them, so I will choose two examples close to home.
Years ago, my husband had a widowed aunt with no children who lived on her own in what seemed like a rather lonely life, although she never complained. My daughter, who was good at such things, always remembered her birthday – and would also phone me ahead of time to remind me to send a card, too. I would have forgotten otherwise.
Bingo, two kindnesses at the same time.
More recently, she has been very attentive to the needs of us, her increasingly aging parents. She not only visits fairly frequently (lots of grown-up children do that), but on her way she stops by a major farmer’s market. She then brings us the provisions (cheeses, fresh parma ham and the like) we used to buy ourselves but don’t get to do so anymore.
We get the pleasure of seeing her and having a lot of delicious food for the following week.
She is, it so happens, equally nice but in different ways. She is very knowledgeable about medical matters and so is a go-to person when there is any kind of problem. But she also has the sensitivity to know just how much information individual family members actually want. Giving information is easy; giving it with some thought requires both care and skill.
And she makes the best brownies in the world and gave us a ‘lifetime subscription’ to them, so that any time we run out, we can order more.
And, I am delighted so say that both women have brought up their sons to be caring and nice people.
Some people will say, “Oh everyone is nice, so what’s the big deal?” But this just isn’t so. Many people are much more concerned with their own needs than those of others. Real niceness needs to be taken seriously and duly acknowledged.
And this is true for nice people themselves. Quite a few years ago, I was talking to my daughter about her qualities. When I spoke enthusiastically about her niceness, she immediately reacted that it was not something worth talking about. It sounded boring and pallid, she felt. Nothing to be proud of.
I searched for other words – ‘caring’, ‘thoughtful of other people’s needs’, ‘kind’. This got us a bit further, but I wasn’t sure she was convinced. She had clearly internalised the general view that being ‘nice’ wasn’t an important quality.
It’s one of those things that is difficult to specify precisely, but heaven knows, you know it when you see it.
And it is good.
Do you have many nice people in your life? What does that mean for you? Can you give examples? Or do you have some not very nice people in your life? Could you share examples?