What it means to be kind.
In the early 13th century people who were noble or of a higher class were expected to act in virtuous and moral ways, especially to those who were less fortunate than them. It’s how their “kind” expressed their “kind-ness”, and that’s how we get the origin of the word. Kindness. Today the definition of kindness, the collective qualities of being generous, friendly and considerate, is rooted in its nobility. The whole concept is associated with virtue and the practice of being good, while the root of the word “nice” is not actually nice at all.
The roots of “nice” are almost in direct opposition to kindness. What is the etymology or root of the word “nice,” you ask? Foolish, stupid, senseless, careless, clumsy, weak, and many other not-so-flattering words. Somehow, the meaning of the word nice changed from insulting to being literally the laziest compliment you can give someone or say about something. It has raised above an insult to, honestly, slightly more than that. Today nice means “something pleasant or agreeable.” Blech.
To add insult to injury, it’s a word that is also deeply rooted in gender bias. What are little girls made of? Sugar, spice, and everything nice. Girls are expected to be sweet. “Nice guys finish last” is a way to tell a man to not be a loser. Niceness is somehow both what girls are fundamentally made of and what guys should strive not to be lest they fail.
Mother Teresa, in her “Do it Anyway” prayer does not mince words (let alone sound “pleasant or agreeable”) when she talks about kindness, “the practice of goodness,” in action—on taking the high road:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
Kindness, trouble, and courage go hand in hand. If you try to just be nice, people will never accuse you of being selfish or having ulterior motives. You’re just… there. Agreeable. It’ll be hard, to be honest, and sincere with others. You’ll become afraid to live your life out loud out of fear that sincerity alienates others. You will submit to the projection of others instead of the divinity of goodness in you.
The real high road Mother Teresa is talking about is not the fake one people pretend to take out of condescension or envy—bless their hearts. It’s not echoing the original etymology of the word by adding the words “but they’re so nice” to make up for someone else’s shortcomings, implying they are weak or simple. It’s not playing nice with a bully who is mean to others.
Kindness is having the courage to stand up for what is generous, friendly and considerate. This road will inherently be filled with conflict, but it will be meaningful and truthful conflict. The real high road of kindness is leaving all niceness behind, leaving the word nice for such things as describing how the how the weather can be or offering up a sarcastic compliment. I say we embrace kindness and act as people who are better than ourselves and quit being nice at the expense of being truthful.
Kindness over Niceness, any day of the week.