Friday, November 22, 2013

Not So Nice

Twenty years ago, when I was studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, I had a discussion with one of the other American students in my program, a University of Michigan student who wrote poetry, took very little guff, and was strikingly cooler than me. She'd grown up in Detroit, and I thought that she was the real deal, not an impostor like me, who had grown up in a city in Wisconsin that seemed like a puny town to anyone from a real city, and a metropolis only to all the folks who grew up in one-stoplight farming villages. 

It was fall, and she and I were walking down a main street from the place de l'Hôtel de Ville to the apartment where I lived on rue des Chaudronniers. We had just reached the tiny pizza counter that carved out the corner of our apartment building when we had an exchange that I have never forgotten.

I described someone—I don't really know who now, as I look back—as kind, and she said something like, "It interests me that you use the word, 'kind,' not 'nice,' to describe her. People usually say nice. You don't think she is nice?" 

At that point, I noted that, to me, niceness is a behavior, an activity of politeness, and potentially an expression of a kind heart; kindness, itself, is a different thing entirely. Being kind—truly being kind—is a point of character, a way of being that focuses upon connection to others through compassion, empathy, and genuine love and concern. Kindness is a place from which any true niceness can spring, but the act of being nice can also be an affect, an expression of expected behavior, or even a tactic through which one could get what they need in the world, without really being kind at all.

"I like that, Kori. Words matter. Let's all be kind, not just nice."

"Thanks for asking me, since I don't think I ever realized my core belief on this until I said it, just now. We figured this thing out together."

We then went upstairs to my apartment kitchen, and shared cups of herbal tea—I hated real tea then, and I still hate it now—and generally made fun of how horrible we were feeling still adjusting to life in France.

Fast forward twenty years: before turning forty earlier this month, I'd heard a lot of hype about how great this decade is, how freeing it can be, how the forties tend to liberate ladies from paying attention to the petty, the showy, and the meaningless. At forty, you care less about what others think, and care more about who you want to be, everyone told me with smiles.

I take any depictions that make any period of time sound like a wartime campaign to personal freedom led by a subconscious Eisenhower with a grain of salt, much like I interpret the saying that rain on a wedding day is good luck to be something we've collectively decided to tell brides to make the rain seem positive, especially when the chuppah they had made especially out of 10,000 delicate hydrangeas is being simultaneously flooded and carried off by the wind. While it may be more psychologically freeing, I can already tell that forty certainly requires some additional maintenance to my health and wellbeing that will take up the slack in my schedule left by letting go of self-consciousness and "youngin' troubles." Every decade has its rewards and its price.

I do like forty, though, and I do feel like I am learning how to let stuff go at a faster pace than ever before. I like the idea of feeling open to try anything because, who cares if I fail? I don't! The stakes aren't nearly as high as they were at 25, when I needed people to know that I was the real deal, much like I believed my friend to be back in Aix. As I said on my birthday, "I'm not forty-something, I'm forty-someone." I like that someone. Better yet: I know I'm someone, and I don't need anyone else to validate that for it to be true.

It's starting to occur to me, in little hints and whispers, that this time in my life is less about the shedding of worry and anxiety and trepidation—although age is definitely giving me that gift—and more about winnowing down to the good stuff, then building that stuff up. 

Case in point: now, more than ever, I want to be kind. Truly kind. Kind in the way I described to my friend off the cuff all those years ago. Kind in a way that matters, even when it interferes with being nice; maybe especially then.

My actions in the space where kind intersects with nice and has a battle royale are increasingly more bold. I am a person who is more willing to step into the melee to uphold kindness than I was at any other time. It is growing in me, this need to be kind and gentle to myself and others, and to really let all the rest of the stuff go.

I want to be kind to my body, not just nice, by:

--sleeping enough hours (kind), instead of staying up late to watch shows or chat online (which feels nice)

--exercising regularly (kind), instead of resting when I feel sluggish (which feels nice)
--eating mindfully and well (kind), instead of eating irregularly and inattentively (which feels nice)

I want to be kind to others, not just nice, by:

--being present (kind), instead of distracting myself with technology or gossip or a spinning mind (which feels temporarily nice)

--telling the truth (kind), especially when there is conflict, instead of playing nice and letting things boil and simmer and build in resentment
--being quiet (kind), instead of feeling it necessary to say what will make me feel good (which feels nice) at the expense of others

I want to be kind to the world, not just nice, by:

--volunteering more in ways that require true sacrifice (kind), instead of talking about how we all need to care more (which feels nice, but does nothing)

--focusing my energy in positive directions (kind), instead of feeling cynnical or snarky (which can feel nice in the moment)
--asking for help when I need it, so as to let others be of service (kind), instead of only being the helper (which feels nice to me, and serves to make me feel like the better person, a ridiculous illusion)

When I think about the moments for which I wish I had a "do over," most of them center around a lack of kindness on my part. Kindness is a tall order, and mere mortals like me are bound to fall short on offering it up. My hope is that I can be kind enough with myself to keep at it, and to forgive myself when I miss the mark.

I'm done being nice, and I hope I'm kinder for it.

1 comment:

  1. Um…ah…WOWWWWWW!!! This just totally blew my mind. What an incredible, amazing self discovery. Speechless