What ‘Nice’ Means

Normally I can find a way to get along with anyone.  I am particularly good at getting along with people others might find difficult.  Actually I did this for a living for a long time and enjoyed the challenge greatly.  Every so often though, I find the odd one who trips me up.  One that I find incredibly difficulty to like, and when that happens I conclude that I can not be a very nice person.

Why?  Because I was brought up to be a nice person.  I was brought up to get along with everyone.  My upbringing said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.  Actually I didn’t love myself at all (but that’s another story).  I was taught to like everyone and get on with everyone.  To be polite and well-mannered.  I was taught things like The Ten Commandments.  They were actually one of the earliest things I can remember learning and I concluded that these would make me into the nice person I was supposed to be.

I was about 14 years old when I first came across this poem.  I know it’s long, that’s why you have a choice of reading the text or watching the clip, based on the text.  It made a big impression on me at the time, and today it came back to mind.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all it’s sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

© Max Ehrmann 1927 (1.)

I first came across Desiderata at the house of a woman I had visited with my family.  She was someone we knew through church.  Someone I never found easy to like.  And actually being ‘nice’ had it’s difficulties at times.   Actually I never felt like she was being nice to me.  She always seemed critical of me.  Nothing I did was ever good enough.  I didn’t understand her sense of humour so didn’t laugh at what she said.  Actually it seemed like she was laughing at me.

I think that’s why I was surprised to find, and read the framed copy of Desiderata in her home.  It didn’t really strike me as something she would have.  Somehow it didn’t go with the personality I saw, but then it made me start to realise that people are often so much different from they appear.

‘Nice’  was all a nice ideal but not too far from the surface lay some pretty big restrictions.  It simply screwed up my thoughts about myself further when I realised that for a few (and it was only a few!) people,  I just couldn’t find a way to like them.  I couldn’t like what they said and did.  Suddenly it condemned me as not a very nice person.  I was no longer what I thought I was supposed to be.

I’m not talking a lot of people here.  I have been tripped up by one just recently, and that is the reason for this post.  Just the occasional one whose wilful ignorance, cruelty and complete lack of regard for other people (and beings) really upsets me.  I admit I don’t know how to be with these people and actually I find myself very impatient to get away from them.

Once I used to want to change their thinking.  I guess I wanted to be the ‘nice person’ who would change them from their ways. Now I realise that I do myself a favour by not trying to change the sometimes unchangeable.  If anything I’d rather spend my energy in making up for some of the damage they create.

I also think that being in ‘nice places’ where I was taught to think ‘nicely’ does not protect me from these people.  Actually those nice places contain not-nice people too.  I have a lasting impression in my mind of the church-going smokers outside church smoking after the Sunday service.  There was an (usually unspoken) impression that these people were second rate amongst the church goers.  I hated that.  Actually this impression is one of several reasons I eventually started smoking myself.   I preferred to be seen as second-rate rather than ‘nice’, if that’s what nice people did.  What it might have done for my physical health or bank balance is another issue and I’m working on that, but here were ‘nice’ people judging others.

I can’t just assume a particular group of people will have the compassion  and niceness I long to see.  I know from experience this is not the case.  I learnt that the hard way.  Many times over. I’ve also learnt that it doesn’t pay to try to put labels on groups.

I admit that I was confused by the things I was taught, as both a child and an adult.  Some things seemed impossible to achieve and some were not particularly helpful to me.  Some things ended up harming me and then I wondered where I went wrong (note that I assumed it was always me who was wrong).   Nice was not as easily defined as I had been led to believe.

I find that I can now go back to Desiderata and find something I can live with.  One part particularly speaks to me:

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the
stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is
clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

I am no more nice than any other being.  I have just the same right to be here.  I still find it difficult to accept those who are cruel and show no regard for others.  I still don’t know how to be alongside them but I don’t think I have to try to re-mould them into ‘nice’ people, or perhaps more importantly, re-mould myself into what might suit them.   I don’t even have to understand them.  Strangely I still find it easier sometimes to get on with the people who might be defined by others as not nice.  I guess I have my own definition of nice nowdays, and that works a whole lot better for me.

Actually all I have to do is be true to who I really am, and if that occasionally makes me into not a sometimes second rate person, then that is perfectly fine by me.  I don’t have to like everyone I come across.  All I have to be is me.

“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight.  Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward.  Your life will never be the same again.” 

~Og Mandino


10 thoughts on “What ‘Nice’ Means

  1. I relate to SO much of this, Cate!! The struggle to be nice b/c it’s the way I was taught everyone should be. The pain when I discovered that was a lie — everyone is NOT nice and WASN’T raised to be that way. Taking on a job that belongs only to God as I struggled to “change” people, thinking if I could only find the RIGHT words I could convince them to change. The same poem I read in school when it made its way around my grade as a young teenager and coming across the similar words in one of Paul’s letters in the Bible, which surprised me b/c it was like I was reading that Scripture for the first time. Realizing I need to claim my place on earth, as my best human counselor ever told me over and over again, and trying so hard to do that when others have tried so hard to stop me from doing that. HIGHLY identifying with Dana Carvey’s “The Church Lady” on Saturday Night Live b/c there were women like that in the denomination I was raised who’d stand in the foyer every Sunday morning and say in their haughty demeanor, “And where was the Nichols family last Sunday?” as my sister and I felt uncomfortable before their condemning eyes, as I squirmed and awaited Daddy telling them we’d been out of town, while Mama stood there quietly smiling at them and the lesson of hypocrisy and how much I despised it was once more reaffirmed in my soul.

    Your posts are always so intelligently thought out and put together!! I admire that particular talent you have!!

    And, Cate, I honestly don’t believe you ever have been, are or ever will be a second-rate person!!

    (All caps for emphasis, not for screaming, as I still don’t know how to do italics simply from my keyboard.)

    1. It’s okay. I know you well enough to know you’re not screaming at me. 🙂 What I’m wondering is why does the word haughty only seem to come up in church context? Isn’t that sad? So much for being like Jesus. Thanks for your comments Kathy. I always love them. 🙂

  2. I really can’t believe you picked out those three lines from desiderata! my dad was never a poet but whenever i was upset or suffered a setback of some kind he would use that quote to try and help me feel better. genuinely moved by reading this post, thanks again for your brilliant writing

  3. this is really a thoughtful post. I think you have it right when you say ” I just have to be me”. I wish more people thought about their actions and feelings toward other people like you. I think you are a wonderful person. 😉

  4. When I’m confronted with my own thoughts of judgment of another, I remind myself that they, just like me, are doing the best they can at that moment with the tools, thoughts, beliefs, and understandings they have. We never know what is going on in another one’s life that causes them to behave in ways that we don’t agree with/approve of.

    Great post. I copied and pasted the poem into my journal a few years ago when I first read it. It was wonderful to be reminded again of it. Thanks for your writings!

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