Nice People - What does it mean?

My default perspective of people is that they're nice. That doesn't particularly hold true if you compare things to history, or other cultures, or even all of my own experience. I've had my life threatened many times, I've been shot at, had someone try to stab me, been successfully poisoned in Africa, have had money stolen, been lied to and betrayed, been lied about, and I've been conned a few times. I've largely ignored this contradiction because I didn't know how to reconcile it. But, the last 16 months have held it in my awareness so consistently that I need to confront my ideas about the niceness of people. Today is a good example.

I decided to go for a walk at Lake Harbor Park to clear my head. It's been a drizzly day, which I like. With an overcast sky blocking out the sun, the park wasn't too busy, which I also like. I took a trail that isn't the most popular. You walk up a small incline of sand, and then turn down a narrow ravine with trees all around you. Even when the sun is out it doesn't touch you there. I didn't encounter any people on that trail.

I could hear the heavy waves of Lake Michigan crashing on the sandy shore in front of me as I started to come out of the ravine. There's a steep climb up a sand dune. I cut across the top of the dunes along the shore, watching the waves crash. I saw one other woman with her dog and a backpack sitting on the sand staring out over the water. My boots left footprints in the sand, but made hardly a sound. With the noise from the wind and the waves the woman didn't even notice me walk by her, and I left her to her solitary contemplation. She seemed nice.

I saw that there were large orange markers floating out in the lake and wondered what they were for. I came off the dunes onto a set of wooden stairs. The first thing that I noticed was that the part of the channel that had collapsed earlier in the year had been repaired. As I walked down the stairs I noticed that there was a man with a jet ski in the channel. It seemed that him and his son were pulling in the orange buoys with the jet ski. I smiled and waved, and they smiled and waved back as they headed back out of the channel for another round. They seemed nice.

As I was getting in my car to leave there was a couple getting out of their car two parking spots over. The husband got the two dogs, and the mother was picking up the baby girl. I said hi to the guy and he said hi back, and I waited to make sure both of the dogs were where I could see them before backing out. They seemed nice.

I decided to stop at Meijer on Henry to get some Wallaby brand kefir, because it's a tasty treat. I walked to the back of the store, grabbed two bottles in each hand, and got in line. It was an oddly long line stretching from the self-checkout area, across the main aisle, and into the produce area. I was standing in line and a guy came up and stood next to me. He stared at the line and sighed. He put his two half-gallons of chocolate milk that he was carrying onto a stack of Coca-Cola in the aisle. I laughed and said, "It's a weirdly long line today. It's not a holiday or anything is it? The holiday was last weekend." He agreed that it was odd having such a long line.

We were talking and he kept adjusting his mask. I said, "The masks are annoying aren't they?" He agreed and said, "What's really annoying is the six foot thing. Whenever you start to get close to anyone they start to do this!" And he tucked into a little cower and shuffled away like he was afraid. We both laughed, me with my leprechaun bandana around my neck and him adjusting his mask. We talked about my students who grew up wearing masks in the Soviet Union and in China. He mentioned conditioning, and then told me that he uses whole Meijer brand chocolate milk that he mixes with plain two percent milk to create the best tasting concoction. We checked out at the same time at different registers and were walking out together. I told him that it was nice talking with him. He asked me my name and I told him, and he told me his name was Eric. We shook hands and he said how nice it was to meet me. And how unusual it was to have a nice conversation in a checkout line, especially now, and he liked that I was a teacher. He was surprised to have had such a nice talk.

The next place I was headed for was Scott Meats. I drove down Broadway Avenue. The road feels like driving down a rough two-track, as you're bouncing along you look out the window and see empty business after empty business, boards over the windows and doors, a desolate sight. There were more people than usual walking along the sidewalk. I noticed that one was holding a cardboard sign that read "Black Lives Matter", and just after that I passed the rally they were holding in the park. Ignoring the crippling content of the underlying philosophy, people walking on the sidewalk and speaking and standing in a park seem nice.

As I was walking into the meat store there was a guy standing outside with a bag on his walker. I asked if he needed help. He seemed quite surprised that I talked to him. He said he was just waiting for a cab. He seemed nice.

I went inside and grabbed my ticket, waited, and got a bag of hanger steaks. I asked what the seasoning was on them and the clerk told me that it wasn't anything particularly special, but a mix that they made in the back. He seemed nice.

I got in line as the woman in front of me was just finishing checking out. The cashier motioned me forward as she called for someone to come help the woman carry out her two bags. She had asked the cashier if the hanger steaks were any good, she said yes, and I said, "They are very good." The cashier scanned my bag and I put in my card as she told the woman waiting that it would be a moment for someone to come and carry her bags for her. I said, "I can help you." Both of the women were very surprised and said "Really?!" I said, "Yeah, I'm headed that way anyway." and laughed. They both did the thing where you agree with something by making one muffled laugh and nodding your head. The cashier remarked several times that it was so nice of me to help. I carried my bag in one hand and one of the woman's bags in the other hand. She thanked me several times as we walked to her truck. I told her to have a nice day and she thanked me again. When I was one car away she yelled something. I turned around and asked, "What?" She said, "I can give you a dollar tip if you want." I said, "No, it's no problem. My car's right over there. Have a good one." She seemed nice.

On my drive home I was reflecting on these unusual interactions. Mostly on the fact that they seem normal to me, and they seem so surprising to the other people. I was thinking to myself, "Why have these people been so surprised by these normal interactions?" My mind answered back with the obvious, "Because they aren't normal." They never were, and are even less so now that covid has made everyone scared of everyone else. When's the last time that I saw someone carry groceries out for a stranger? Never. When's the last time I saw someone walk up to a stranger standing in a parking lot and ask them if they need help? Never. When's the last time I saw two strangers have a sincere conversation diving into serious topics in a checkout line? Never.

It's not that they never happen, they're just so rare that you aren't going to see them. Sometimes people plan to do nice things. A few years ago there was a fad about paying for the meal of the person behind you in the fast-food drive-through. I don't think it's the same thing psychologically. That's a planned anonymous charity, rather than a sincere person-to-person encounter in the moment. Helping people with money might be more common. A few years ago I was having breakfast at a restaurant. I was standing in the checkout line and the old guy in front of me was digging for money to pay. It seemed like he probably wasn't going to come up with the total amount. I told him and the cashier to just put it on mine and I'd cover it. He thanked me, but didn't seem surprised. The cashier didn't seem surprised either, and we had a little conversation about him having love and hate tattooed across his knuckles. No big deal.

On the other hand, a couple of years ago I was looking for a parking space at the grocery store in the middle of winter. There was an old guy that got his front tire stuck in a snowbank. He was putting it in forward, reverse, forward, reverse. I drove past him while finding a parking spot. There were a lot of people at the store. People walking in, people walking out. There were tons of people that walked past this guy. By the time that I had parked and walked down the parking lot lane, not a single person stopped to help him. All he needed was a little push. I helped him and he was on his way. I remember being surprised that no one else had offered to help this guy, even though a lot of people were walking right by him.

In my mind, in these various situations, I was just being nice. I get this emphasis on being nice from my mother. But you can see that there's some inconsistency in my use of the word and my application of the concept. Because of the way I use it almost everyone gets classified in my mind as nice. And that doesn't fully work, because when I encounter not nice people, as I often do, it conflicts with my perception of all of humanity as mostly nice, which is a depressing inner conflict. I need to change things to come into closer contact with reality.

Our performative actions contain more information than images, and images contain more information than words. What we're seeing here is a discrepancy between how I'm classifying performative actions of myself and others with the words that I'm using. When I'm helpful, I'm nice. When I offer to help, I'm nice. When I have a sincere personal encounter, I'm nice. When someone talks to me, they're nice. When someone smiles at me, they're nice. When someone doesn't do anything, they're nice. This extremely wide range makes the use of the word fuzzy.

There's a big gap between being helpful and not doing anything. The key difference is between being active and being passive. Now we're getting to the heart of the issue, I can feel it. My use of nice includes being not-bad, non-malevolent, and not-hurtful. These are completely passive things. We could say that the person isn't good or bad, they're neutral. Just because someone's not-bad doesn't mean they're good, being non-malevolent doesn't mean you're benevolent, being not-hurtful doesn't mean you're helpful. Being helpful is good, being hurtful is bad, being non-helpful and non-hurtful is neutral. It holds the potential for moral action, but isn't engaged in it.

This passivity is what's common. Mixing the ideas of being passive and being active is what's confused my working definition of niceness.

This pervasive passivity is also what allows for atrocities. Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers talk about this in Nazi Germany, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel talk about it in the Soviet Union. Stanley Milgram demonstrated it in his famous experiments. Arendt called it the banality of evil. Milgram called it the agentic state. To classify this passivity under the same heading as helpfulness is obviously a mistake.

Now we know the distinction that I was failing to make in my thinking. There is an immense amount of change that comes from that. It will take some time for my mind, body, and soul to fully digest. But I can point out some of how it will begin. For instance, if I think that almost everyone is nice, and within niceness I have being non-malevolent, and being helpful. Then, when a bunch of people pass by someone who needs help, and it wouldn't even be inconvenient to help, they are both being nice in being non-malevolent, and not being nice for not being helpful. Most people are passive, not helpful. They can be helpful in certain circumstances. If the person was in their in-group and they knew them they might help them, if an authority figure told them to help they probably would, if others were helping they might conform, if there was a reward someone would help for the benefit. But being helpful outside of these parameters is extremely unusual. By making the clear distinction between passivity and helpfulness there is no longer an inner contradiction in my perception of the situation.

It does make a deeper problem stand out though. Since this passivity is the norm by far, and it allows for such great injustices to prevail, how do we move away from it as a society? The first part of that answer is simple, the society is made out of individuals, so it's a change that has to occur in individuals. Carl Jung emphasized that very clearly. Arendt talks about the importance of thinking as an individual, Jaspers talks about assessing your individual guilt, Viktor Frankl talks about discovering and fulfilling individual meaning. What they're all dealing with is the conscience. How do we activate the conscience? How do we make and keep it strong? When I wrote 'Moral Engagement' I was talking about the contents of conscience, but the practices that engage it are something different. It's what pulls Arendt, Jaspers, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, Jung, and Frankl all into the spiritual realm when they talk about doing good and constraining evil, first within the self. It's deeper than philosophy and psychology. What's needed is deeper than a better thought. The mind and body house an emergent property, the conscience, the soul. In the depths of the individual what's needed is spiritual healing. Heal the spirit, the conscience, the soul. That is the way forward.

Here's the link to 'Moral Engagement':


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