McKenzie got off to a rough start in my grocery store checkout line. She had come in as the third person in my line, but when she got in front of me she realized she was missing a couple of items. She sheepishly apologized as she gathered up her groceries in her very-full arms. When I said “Hey, leave them with me – I’ll take care of them for you until you get back”, she was obviously touched and said, “Oh, you’re so nice.”
Grocery store lines run in waves. By the time McKenzie returned with her two new items, all our lines – even with the store manager out running a cash register – had reached their peak of the day. McKenzie dutifully took her spot at the end of my line – she was #6. Her sweetness had made an impression on me and I had been watching for her. When I finished with the guy in front of me, I loudly called out, “Where’s the girl who already came through the line? Right, you – you don’t have to wait again. Folks, she’s already been through the line once. She forgot some things and had to go back.”
McKenzie was, I think, pleased and honored and embarrassed. I think that, even in her embarrassment, she got it that nobody seemed at all miffed by her skipping to the head of the line. I think she just radiated niceness and they liked playing a part in being nice to her. While we finished her transaction, McKenzie in several ways said how happy this had made her – that it made her day. The lingering smile we shared at the end of her transaction also made my day.
I’m somewhat over my aversion to the word “nice”. This word and concept can be a trap – something that keeps you from being assertive. Women especially are oppressed by the expectation to be nice. All this can be especially smothering in the South, where I now live (though Asheville is a little cultural bubble of its own energy). I grew up being way too nice. In the little college where I taught for two years, I was voted the most popular prof in the school the same year that the student newspaper aimed a very trenchant spoof on me in their April Fool’s Onion-style issue. It had me at the dinner table, being asked to pass the mashed potatoes. I erupt with, “Fuck you – just fuck you. I’m sick of being Mr. Nice Guy.” They were on to me – there was something too much in it.
I have changed tremendously – through a lot of therapy and personal growth, many risks taken, some feelings hurt and lots of people surprised when they got to see my not-nice side. I was not terribly skilled with it when I started and occasionally was excessive, but I’ve gotten pretty skilled over the years. There was a period when I really resisted the “nice” word: “If you brought in a panel of people who really know me well, they would not call me nice. They have seen me being other ways than nice.”
These days I am less triggered by “nice”, but I prefer a couple of other words. Some people think the word “sweet” is as oppressive as “nice”, but I had a spiritual teacher – Sri Chinmoy – who really gave “sweet” a lovely meaning for me.
To him, being sweet was very spiritual – radiating a lovely spiritual essence. When he had met my genuinely very lovely two-year old boy in my arms after a large public meditation, afterwards he said to the meditation students around him, “Did you see that baby? So sweet – so sweet.” So when I think or say that someone is sweet, I’m saying something really nice :).
About ten years ago, Frank Marshall gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received – something that has totally stuck with me. He already knew me – but not intimately – from church. After I had facilitated a three-hour Saturday morning workshop, he said to me “You are the kindest man I’ve ever met.” It was easy for me to think of examples where I had not been kind, but it still got under my skin. There’s no question that this was also projection on Frank’s part, because he is an exceptionally kind man. When yesterday Frank was breezing through the grocery store and yelled “Hi” to me, I yelled “You have got the greatest smile”, and he, inevitably – but honestly, I really do believe – yelled back “You too.”
So Frank and McKenzie go through the world making it a kinder, sweeter, nicer, more peaceful place. People around them have their own sweetness pulled to the surface. And, if you catch me at a good moment, I guess I can be nice too.