Blog Post, Personal, writing

Martin Luther King’s Last Vision

Today is my birthday, and I spent the early part of the morning reflecting briefly on my life: friendships, accomplishments, goals, marriage, and family. But I’ve also been thinking a lot this morning about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was fifty years ago today–April 3rd, 1968–that he delivered his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

The opportunity must have seemed both ideal and disconcerting to King, who had spent so many years tirelessly marching forward in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, only to see so little progress. At this point in his life and career, the attention of major news outlets had turned away from his leadership, which must have seemed stalled, in favor of reporting on the more dramatic activities of the black power movement, which was also doing good work and heavy lifting, but in a more obvious way (and as we know, the media loves spectacle).

So, King had turned his attentions to issues of poverty and to supporting the poor and working classes in America. For this reason, I think being invited down to Memphis to speak to the Sanitation Workers in support of their strike for fairer wages and work conditions, must have been promising. But King had another relationship with the city of Memphis, and he surely knew it would not—or could not—be another Selma. Still, he went and, apparently without notes, delivered one of his most powerful, memorable, and moving sermons. The one that would be his last.

A storm raging outside, thunder and lightning crashing in the background, and rain pummeling the tin roof, set a kind of wild and natural rhythm. King stepped up to the podium and addressed a sea of people who had been calling his name: “The nation is sick,” he said. “Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” I can only imagine the feeling in the room right then. Here came a group of workers looking for support and leadership and encouragement from one of the world’s greatest inspirational orators, and this is how he begins?

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

But King seemed to know that all of these American problems were related. The struggle for racial equality and worker’s rights. The struggle against poverty and the struggle for peace. Vietnam continued on, and more and more young people died for reasons that were muddy at best. The rich and powerful got richer and more powerful on the backs of laborers and with the help of investments in the military industrial complex. And segregation and its legacy were still pressing issues. Still, King looked at all of this and remarked that he was happy to live in this time, because “we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it.” He believed that the time was now, that it was “no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He was throwing down the gauntlet.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.

I look at the world around us today, at the rise in racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic, and transphobic hate crimes, and I wonder, did Dr. King think we would have come together by now? Solved this by now? And why haven’t we? And where is our Dr. King these days? I think about how Dr. King, in that last sermon, chastised the press for only dealing with surface issues and consider what that means today, in this new age of for-profit news driven by monopolies like the Sinclair group which orders its 200 affiliates around the country to read a script about “false news” on the very news stations so many people watch, and trust, because it is their local station.

I look at the world around us today, at our declining status in the international community; at our collective disdain for facts and education; at the anti-intellectualism that folks like Stephen Hawking have been warning us about; and at the bridges, real and figurative, we have been building around our own little bubbles to insulate us, with the help of social media algorithms that keep us locked into our tunnel vision, and I wonder when, or if, we will ever be able to come together and see and think and feel as a people again.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be.

It seems to take more and more effort to be positive today. But even in his last and perhaps most painful speech, Dr. King looked up and forward:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

The very next day, Dr. King was assassinated outside his hotel room in Memphis. There couldn’t be a more startling juxtaposition of hope and despair. Who could continue to march forward when the very voice of faith had been extinguished?

Except, it hasn’t been. We still remember that voice and look to that voice today. And when I ask myself, where is our Dr. King, I have to admit that I’ve been blind. I’ve been taken in by Twitter-storms and negative media reinforcement and “fake news”, and I have overlooked the people.

I look now and see the men and women marching for women’s rights.

I look now and see the teachers marching for their students’ rights.

I look now and see the students marching for their lives.

I look now and see that “in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath).

So, on my birthday this year, I have just one wish. Perhaps we can all be a little bit more like Dr. King. Despite our fears and doubts and despairs, perhaps we can look to that Promised Land. Perhaps we can open our eyes and our hearts and our minds and our ears; we can listen to each other and look to each other again, not through these arbitrary lenses shaped by ideological forces outside ourselves, but with our own vision. And perhaps we can accept and applaud and champion the voice of Dr. King that still resonates through our youth, the new leaders of our day.

I see and I hear 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, who stood in front of a crowd of 800,000 people to say, “I am here to acknowledge the African American girls whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

I see and I hear 18-year-old David Hogg when he says, “The cold grasp of corruption shackles the District of Columbia. The winter is over. Change is here. The sun shines on a new day, and the day is ours.” And I believe him.

I see and I hear Edna Chavez when she cries, “It was a day like any other day. Sunset going down on South Central. You hear pops, thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin on your brother’s skin go gray. Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” And I say it: Ricardo.

I see and I hear Emma Gonzalez’s silence, and I respect it.

We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point . . . [w]e’ve got to see it through.

There is a future. That future is always to be determined. My wish this year is that our future will be shaped by the rejection of fear, the embracing of love, and a new determination to succeed together in this great human experiment.

Standard
Blog Post, Personal

My Word for 2018

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)
Road in Etten, 1881. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.774)

I noticed a trend this year, one that apparently has been around for some time but which I have either missed or ignored, wherein people choose one word to make their “word of the year.” The idea is to start the new year with a single focus, a word that can inspire a philosophical perspective, an emotional change, some kind of personal growth or achievement, etc. I decided, considering I’m continuing my stoic journey this year, and with much more focus and intention than I have given it in the past, this “word of the year” might be a beneficial opportunity.

My word for 2018 is: SEE. To see. To notice. To be attentive.

In 2018, I’m continuing a path that I began a few years ago, around my second year of doctoral studies, toward outward living; toward charity, kindness, and compassion, and away from non-essential distractions. This has been a very slow process for me, not helped at all by the tumultuous last couple of years. I have been wholly consumed by politics and global affairs, much of which I have very little control over but which has “demanded” my attention, my energy, my words, my time. I haven’t been able to see clearly enough how deeply all of this has influenced my mental, physical, and emotional health, and how little it has helped my relationships with other people (in some cases, it has actively hurt them).

So, in pursuing a much more intentional stoic course of study and commitment this year, I want to embrace this word, see, in a variety of ways, and allow it to help me achieve a stoic way of living, which is to say, a life free from unnecessary distractions and a perspective that allows my attention to be drawn only to those things over which I have control.

This year, I want to see my surroundings. I moved with my husband to a new state, a new region of the United States, four months ago. We have found time to explore some new-to-us things, and to take an adventure or two, but I want to do much more of this in the coming year. I want to put away my “smart” phone, to step away from social media, and engage with my new city, with a new community, and all the new goals and opportunities they might bring. There is, for example, a group in the area that meets weekly to discuss science and philosophy and art, and all sorts of interesting things. I located it before we even moved here, and yet every week goes by without my even attempting to drive over and sit in on a meeting. These are the sorts of opportunities I see as valuable, and so I want to begin engaging with them.

I want to see my husband more clearly, and help him see me more clearly as well. Again, stepping away from these digital devices and spending quality time together will go a long way in helping us do this. I want to manage this, too, in a budget-conscious way and find ways for us to be together without the stress and strain of financial burdens. Part of stoicism is breaking free from financial debts, as well as embracing what is good for me.

To that last point, I want to see ways of politely but effectively saying “No” to what I do not want to do, and see ways of saying “Yes” to those things that I do. I am often mistaking these two things and, instead of embracing the things I am genuinely interested in, the things that will help me live a better and richer life, and become a better person, I say “Yes” to the things I think I should do, whether because I’m worried about what people will think of me if I say no, or of disappointing someone, or of looking bad at work. I hope to see more clearly the paths that will lead to “Yes” and to accept those that are truly right for me. This also means saying “No” when I already have enough to do.

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” — Seneca, “On the Brevity of Life,” 3.3b

I want to see the people in my life for who they are, not for the ideals I hold them to, and then respond accordingly. This means seeing my family, friends, and colleagues more clearly and completely, and either deciding to accept them without judgment or to move on from relationships that are not positive ones. This is a path I began to take years ago as well, and most of the negative influences have, I think, been removed; but I also want to be an authentic friend, brother, son, cousin, uncle to those I am keeping in my life, which means seeing who these people are, truly, and how they affect me, and allowing myself to be seen by them.

Finally, I want to see my priorities clearly and objectively. I want to learn how to acknowledge the difficulties in front of me so that I can better plan how to accomplish what I want to accomplish and achieve what I want to achieve. To this end, I have cut my reading goal for this year nearly in half, so that I can instead spend more time writing. I will be working on major projects, such as ongoing preparations (a years’ long project) for academic tenure; writing, preparing, and submitting work for publication; and attending academic conferences for professional development, personal fulfilment, and networking. I need to see how important these activities are to me and begin a true pursuit of them, rather than limiting myself to a perpetual state of “eventually.”

We are just a few days into the new year, but already I have noticed a distinct change in my perspectives. I hope seeing my plans and goals, strengths and weaknesses, successes and struggles, more clearly will help me to grow as a person, a writer, a teacher, a spouse, a friend. This might sometimes mean accepting that I am not who I thought I was to someone else, that I cannot always be what and whom everyone wants me to be, and that I will sometimes be a disappointment. Again, over others’ perceptions, I have little control, and so I need to let that go in order to focus on the things that I actually can do, and the things that will make my daily life richer and more meaningful, and perhaps even more peaceful.

Most importantly, as I work my way slowly through stoic readings, I plan to incorporate daily reflective writing; and as I work my way slowly through a literary reading of the bible, I plan to incorporate weekly and monthly reflective writing as well. In addition, I am keeping a personal journal and will be writing on the blog, as well as working on my fiction and non-fiction. My final hope in all of these writing exercises is that I will begin to see myself more clearly. I ask my students to see their progress through reflective journaling about their own work over the course of a semester; it is time that I see my own forward—and backward—motion in the same way.

Standard
Blog Post, Personal

What a Year for a New Year

So, here we are on the cusp of another new year. I don’t quite know how to feel about this new year’s eve. I didn’t know what to expect of 2017, and I feel somehow even less sure about 2018. 

Of course, every year brings its ups and downs. I know there will probably be some good things in 2018, just as there were in this last year. In 2017, I finished my PhD, achieved my second publication, and accepted a faculty position in a new state. I know there will probably be some bad things ahead, too, just as 2017 had its share of difficulties. This past year has been a real struggle, psychologically, emotionally, and financially. And I know that the good and the bad, though they come every year, are not always fairly balanced. 

But stoic teachings remind me constantly that, while I can’t always control what happens to me, I do have control over how I respond. So, I’ll try to respond to the good and the bad in the same way, with patience, acceptance, and maybe even a bit of levity. And while I enter the new year without any expectations, I do have one wish: that you will find health and happiness in the days ahead. That you will find genuine friendship, be treated to happy surprises, and experience many more ups than downs. I wish that, on the inevitable bad days, you will find strength and support, and the empathy of others. 

They say nature abhors a vacuum. After a year such as this, I think it’s important to remember that hate, as a force of nature, will try its damnedest to seep into every crack and crevice, at every opportunity. In 2018, let’s insulate ourselves with love and let it be our impenetrable armor; let it fill us to the brim so that there are no cracks, no crevices–no vacuums–for hate to enter; let us live our days with decisions made of love, in everything from our driving habits, to our patience in the grocery check-out line, to the way we treat our co-workers, friends, and family; let’s love so hard and so long that we become exhausted with it, and then take a nap and carry on. 

This year, if we could all accomplish one thing, let it be that we love until our spirits feel truly warm, and safe, and bright, and until hate has been left out in the cold for good. Let’s make 2018 a year of love.

Happy New Year. I’ll see you on the other side.

(P.S. To most of the world who are ahead of us in time zones, I know you’ll get to the new year first – but no spoilers!)  

Standard
Blog Post, Literature

What Do We Mean by “Literary”?

Here’s a question that comes up all the time: How do you know a work is “literary;” or, the even more common, “what is literature”?
As someone who has a difficult time narrowing things down to a “favorite” book, I admit that I find this question about defining or explaining the “literary” genre a bit difficult! But, thinking about the question in relation to a particular example might help. 

 

I first have to expand on my own definition of literary, as it is something that comes up on my blog/twitter often, with the argument often being that “literary” or reading “literature” applies to anyone who reads lots of books. This is just not the case. I am sorry if that sounds snobbish, but it’s true. One who reads hundreds of books a year might rightly be considered bookish, but if these books are mainly* YA-Level, romance novels, erotica, etc., then, no, that, in my opinion, is not literary reading.

 

I would define a work of literature, in general, as something that has lasting or permanent literary and social/political/theological, etc. impact. It could be works, like those of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, that revolutionized a genre (here, the detective story and the mystery genre, respectively). It could be a stand-alone work, like Vanity Fair which, read now, might make one wonder “hm..this is a classic because…?” but which, upon deeper contextual study, is discovered to have been a landmark in terms of prose, execution, or other groundbreaking change to the elements of fiction. The point is, a literary work must have a larger impact on the “literary” world, and it must stand the test of time. Books that have been published within the last 10 years might qualify as literary, because we anticipate that they will last for generations to come and because they are, in some way, a “first” for literature (like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides).

 

So, all that being said, which novel can I pick in order to discuss this idea of “literary merits”? Well, I think I must go with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Hugo wrote Les Miserables following the French Revolution, and after his exile to Guernsey (after calling Napoleon a traitor to France). The novel itself spans 20 years in the life of its unusual protagonist, Jean Valjean, but it tells, through flashbacks and historical segues, much more of French history and culture than could be contained in 20 years.

 

The novel is lengthy, though this has nothing to do with literary merit (some say it is more difficult to write a perfect short book than a perfect long one); however, in this case, it certainly helps that the book is hefty, because it tackles so much: politics and war, religion, and the nature of “family.” Hugo also expounds on elements of moral philosophy; how is a thief a thief, if he thieves only to feed his family? How does a policeman arrest the man responsible for saving his life? These complex morality arguments and the historical nature of the book are what make it socially and academically significant, and thereby will likely seal a place for this book in literary discussion for all time. It is an interesting and sometimes exciting story, but that on its own does not qualify the book as literature. What makes it literature are the many deeper elements that touch upon human nature and that ask the reader to take a look at life and his/her place in it, then ask, “what shall I do with this information?”

 

From my original (short) review of the book:

 

Victor Hugo’s achievement with Les Miserables is stunning and breath-taking. Not only is the story superb, realistic, and moving, but it is complemented by aspects of French philosophy, history, and politics. When beginning this novel, I had no idea that I would be exposed to, and learn so much about, French history and culture. Napoleon Bonaparte, Waterloo, Louis VIII, the Guillotine, European relations, the gamins, prisons, crime and punishment, religion, morality; all of this is examined with a literary microscope. Meanwhile, love, poetry, song, revolution, family, and society are all exposed to the scrutiny of an expelled patriot. The story of Jean Valjean is heartbreaking and vindicating. Cosette and Marius, lovers despite the odds. Javert, the intensely dutiful (to a fault) inspector, and his tragic revelations. Gavroche, the beautiful underprivileged. Fantine, the lost and compromised woman, taken advantage of while trying to care for her daughter. Eponine, Fauchelevent, the Nuns, the Gillenormands, all minor but telling characters that are described incredibly and delicately by Hugo. What most impressed me is how Hugo described the history and purpose of each detail, to demonstrate it’s importance. Chapters of the novel are devoted to explaining seemingly insignificant points of detail, such as the prisons, the chain gangs, the slang language, all of which come into play during the story, but become active and live characters on their own merits because of Hugo’s attention to them. I cannot say enough about this novel – it is truly a masterpiece.

 

So, what about you? Do you select your reading according to type or genre? Do you tend to read mostly from one particular style? Do you find a distinction between literary and non-literary works? And, if so, do you have a preference for one or the other? What do you think compels you toward the books you do read? 

*Note: I think reading widely and eclectically, whatever the type and genre, also has its benefits. I’m not knocking any particular reading choice — I think that’s a rather silly thing to do. My argument is simply that, when we use the term “literary” or “literature,” we should be thinking about context. I might want something from my romance reading, and something else from my comics, and still something else from my horror. I don’t particularly look for the “literary” in those texts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun, interesting, and valuable experiences. 

Standard
Blog Post, Just for Fun, Year In Review

My Life in Books (2017 Edition)

So, here’s a little year-end fun, because why not? I first completed this back in 2010 and thought I would bring it back as a sort of review of this year’s completed reading. The rules? Pretty simple: answer the questions with books you read this year!

  • In high school I was: One of the Boys (Daniel Magariel)
  • People might be surprised (by): The Inexplicable Logic of My Life (Benjamin Alire Saenz)
  • I will never be: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • My fantasy job is: American Studies (Mark Merlis)
  • At the end of a long day I need: Letters to a Young Writer (Colum McCann)
  • I hate it when: Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather)
  • Wish I had: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Mackenzi Lee)
  • My family reunions are: The Art of Being Normal (Lisa Williamson)
  • At a party you’d find me with: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling)
  • I’ve never been to: The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)
  • A happy day includes: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl)
  • Motto I live by: Love is Love (Marc Andreyko)
  • On my bucket list is: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
  • In my next life, I want to have: The Story of My Life (Helen Keller)

That’s it!  My Life in Books! Want to play along? Share yours (or your link!) in the comments. 🙂

Standard
Blog Post, Gender Studies, science

The Pervasive Problem of Gender-Biased Language

On Monday, two pages that I follow, Exploring Masculinities and The Sociological Cinema, shared a recent article written for The Atlantic, titled “Females’ Eggs May Actively Select Certain Sperm: New evidence challenges the oldest law of genetics.” The argument comes from one Joe Nadeau of the Pacific Northwest Research Institute.
 
My first reaction to this was, wait a minute, Emily Martin wrote about this nearly 30-years ago, in her 1991 piece, “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” My hackles were raised, and rightly so, as it turns out.
 
In her original research, Martin explains how the rhetoric of science is, as in every other field, hetero-sexist and patriarchal, favoring masculine actions, descriptions, and even metaphors over neutral or female ones. As a basic example, in the process of fertilization, the sperm “penetrates” the egg, because the sperm is male and must therefore be the active agent in this process. As Martin points out, however, a number of studies at the time were suggesting that the egg might actually attract the sperm, pulling it in as it were, rather than being penetrated by it. And yet, the masculine-favored metaphors persisted (and still do).
 
Now, here we are, 26 years later, and both the researcher (Nadeau) and the science writer for The Atlantic, are ignoring Martin’s work? Why? Well, someone, seemingly Carrie Arnold, the science writer reporting on Nadeau’s work, cites Martin’s piece, but either completely misunderstands it or intentionally misrepresents it:
 
“This male-oriented view of female reproductive biology as largely acquiescent was pervasive, argued Emily Martin, an anthropologist at New York University, in a 1991 paper. ‘The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey but passively “is transported” … along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, ‘streamlined,’ and invariably active,’ she wrote.”
 
This is all the acknowledgment Martin gets, and it completely misses her point. This is not what Martin argued about the science* of the situation, but about the language* used to describe it! Now, I don’t know why Arnold included this portion of Martin’s 16-page piece, whether it was presented in Nadeau’s work in the same way, or whether Arnold found it on her own and thought she was covering an extra base (superficially). It seems clear to me, though, that this is at BEST lazy research on one or both of their parts, and at worst, egregious misrepresentation and dismissal of original work in order to advance Nadeau’s own theory (which is simply Martin 2.0).
 
I couldn’t access Nadeau’s piece (it is published in GENETICS 207.2 (October 2017), but if anyone has access to it and wants to see if he cites/references Martin at all and, if so, in what way, that would be great. Or send it to me. I may very well be missing something (perhaps he did treat Martin fairly in the original, and Arnold glosses it — I don’t know), but at the moment I’m simply fuming.
*
Update: I did get access to the primary study. Martin is not cited in the research (probably because she is an anthropologist, not a geneticist; is not a great excuse, but that’s another problem with “hard” science / “soft” science bias. This, too, is often characterized by gender. People view certain sciences as more “feminine” and others as more “masculine,” so that the actual numbers of people of a certain gender working in or pursuing that field are dramatically skewed); funny that his research still uses the gendered terminology, though, such as “sperm penetrating,” when his research seems to suggest it is a more magnetic (for lack of a better term) relationship between sperm and egg, not an active/passive one. But that begs the question, why was Martin added by the Atlantic writer, and did she simply misunderstand (or poorly phrase her explanation of–) Martin’s work?
Standard
Blog Post, Personal

1 John 3:17-18

Back in September, I went home to Chicago for a weekend to celebrate (and officiate, imagine that!) one of my best friend’s wedding. While I was there, I started talking with my other best friend (yes: I have two. They’re literally the best people. And I do wake up thankful every day for the fact that I can call them both “friend”) about a conversation I had with my husband. 

I’m not sure how exactly this topic arose, some discussion about our compatibilities and why we have been together so long, but my husband mentioned that he is a “nice” person, whereas I am a “kind” person. So, on the surface, or until people really get to know us, my husband is the one who seems approachable, friendly, sympathetic, and all things “nice;” On the other hand, I’ve often been told that people are at first intimidated by me, that I seem intense, quiet, and distant, which they (mis)take for judgmental or cold. We learned something interesting about this when, years ago, we were both working at a book store. Once people got to know both of us individually, and then as a couple, we noticed they would go to him to ask for something, because they knew he would be nice about it, but what they were asking for was often something that I would need to do (because they knew I would probably do it, they just didn’t want to ask me… I don’t suppose my sarcasm helped those situations.) 

Anyway, I was talking to my friend about this and she seemed not only to agree, but to think that it made a lot of sense. That it created some kind of balance. The conversation has had me thinking about these concepts of kindness and niceness; whether most people tend to be one or the other, and how often is it both? (We all know some people who are definitely neither.) I can think of another friend who is both nice and kind, seemingly as a default; she is one of the most decent people I have ever met. But that seems to me to be truly rare. And I wonder why this is. Does it leave us too vulnerable? Is it too exhausting? Are we too often rebuffed or abused if we are always nice and kind? Do people think this is “fake”? 

I do try to be nice, meaning I often find that it takes some effort; but I don’t feel the same about kindness. I don’t often find myself trying to be kind. For me, the “public” nature of niceness, things like friendliness and openness, and even looking people in the eye, takes work. I’ve begun to wonder if that is a part of my introverted personality and something that I can switch “off” in certain scenarios. With my students, for example, I turn “on” in a significant way, and become much more extroverted. On the other hand, kindness, I think, seems to be a deeper and less mutable part of me. I’m probably sometimes too empathetic, and getting even more so as I age, if I’m being honest. There are any number of times that I can recall trying to make someone else’s day or time or experience a little bit better, even at the expense to my own welfare. If I have something and you need it, I’m going to give it to you. If you need a ride or help moving or whatever, and it’s my only day off in 10 days, I’m still going to be there. If someone I don’t know passes away and I’m asked to the wake by a colleague or mutual friend, I usually end up going (even though this has always felt extremely awkward to me). Where does kindness come from? Niceness? Are they both learned traits? Do we start with certain degrees of each and then expand or contract depending on our own experiences? 

Recently, I read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, What Happened, and she shares some similar insights into this question. She seems, like me, to struggle sometimes to project the image of “niceness” and empathy, while internally she is a deeply compassionate and concerned person. This might be one of the reasons I have always admired her beyond the work she has done, and beyond her incredible work ethic and rich knowledge about so many complex issues. Instead, I respect her simply due to this connection with another person of a similar type. Unlike me, Clinton is a religious person. And I pondered that, too. Where do niceness and kindness and morality all come together? There seems to be some kind of “golden rule” at the center of most major religions, though I would never agree that one must be religious in order to be a moral or ethical person. Still, I’ve read the Christian bible a number of times and a verse comes to mind:

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Somehow this passage speaks to me about the truth and value of kindness. This is not to say that the passage is instructing us away from niceness–not at all. But, what I see is that contrast between speaking and doing. Between thinking and acting. Between sympathizing and empathizing. To me, the formers often apply to the nice person. A shoulder, a conversation, and even an acknowledgement of your suffering; all of these are to be found in the nice person. But the kind person is the one who keeps his heart open in order to act. The kind person loves by example, by commitment, and by following through on what is needed most, when it is needed most, and especially, without design or expectation for reward or reciprocity.

Nice is the person who feels bad when a friend’s car breaks down or when they see a stranger caught in the rain. Kind is the person who doesn’t mind when his day is disrupted by that friend in need or who offers his umbrella to the stranger. 

When mother used to say, “be nice,” to the kid everyone picked on, she meant stop picking on him. When Ellen DeGeneres ends her talk show every day with, “be kind,” she means be the sort of person who never would have thought about hurting that kid in the first place. 

For some of us, it is easier, or more natural, to be one or the other. I guess I’m trying to learn how to be both. 

Standard