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Memento Mori… The Danger Of Being Ultra-Nice

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By DONALD DeMARCO

A man wakes up in his nice apartment and, while having a nice cup of coffee, is told by a nice radio voice that the weather will be nice. He drives his nice car through his nice neighborhood and is wished a nice day, verbally by the teller at the bank and silently on his printed receipt.
Niceness characterizes his day. It is a national virtue and should not be questioned. And yet, can we be satisfied with a life that has nothing more to show for itself than our being nice? Can niceness be our passport to Paradise?
Christ never wished us to have a nice day. He required us to love our neighbor, to pick up our cross daily, to turn the other cheek, and to forgive our transgressors. We will not receive such uncomfortable messages on our grocery receipts. Our secular world aims for nothing higher than an unencumbered life, one that does not rise above niceness.
Catholic convert Muriel Spark wanted to remind her readers of something more important than having a nice day. In her 1953 novel, Memento Mori, she has an anonymous telephone caller telling all the principal characters at one time or another, “Remember you must die.”
This stark, unexpected message, though disquieting, does have a salutary effect on some of them. Settling for niceness can distract us from more important things. It was not very nice of Simeon to inform Mary at the Purification that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:25).
Being nice is fine as far as it goes. If someone offers me a nice cup of tea, my tea is immediately sweetened by the addition of human kindness, though I know perfectly well that the tea itself remains unaffected.
But the danger of niceness is its identification with charity. G.K. Chesterton talks about a prominent figure in his time who believed that people should be so nice to each other that it would “make it easier to forgive people by saying that there were no sins to forgive.” It would not be nice to suggest that people actually commit sins. His fuzzy concept of being nice crowded out his sense of justice.
Charity is not divorced from reality. There are times when charity must scold, correct, warn, advise, and even make people feel uncomfortable. Charity is not simply acceptance. It has loftier goals. Charity dares to reform. Niceness is content to conform.
C.S. Lewis understood the danger of making being “nice” the summit of all virtues. In his science fiction novel, That Hideous Strength, he uses the acronym NICE to refer to the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments. One of the main characters, Mark, assumes he is climbing the ladder of success at the Institute whereas he is really descending into Hell.
As a Christian, Lewis understood only too well that we need something more reliable than being nice if we are to save our souls.
No one ever achieved sanctity by being nothing more than nice. “It is the paradox of history,” wrote Chesterton, “that each generation is converted by a saint who contradicts it most….The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote.”
With nothing more than niceness in their arsenal of virtues, secularists, in their supreme niceness, come to accept a potpourri of vices. The LGBTQ flag is a victory of being nice to people over being charitable to them. And so too, abortion and euthanasia are evidence of being nice to people and removing whatever they find uncomfortable.
It is not nice to advise people to pick up their cross daily and follow Christ, though it is salvific. As vice replaces virtue, the abnormal begins to replace the normal. The result is something that is not so nice.
Celebrated actor Al Pacino has complained that the hardest thing about being famous is that people are always nice to you, even when you are saying something completely crazy. Being saturated by a steady diet of niceness leaves him hungry for legitimate criticism. No one can be nice one hundred percent of the time. There are times when niceness is not enough.
Being nice is akin to being polite. It is an entrance virtue in people’s lives. We should be nice, especially to strangers. It is a way of one person addressing another precisely as a person. Charity builds on niceness, but it should not be identified with it. St. Paul wrote beautifully about love. Mere niceness did not seem to interest him.
Marriage requires more than a man and a woman being nice to each other. It needs a virtue that can withstand tempests and remains faithful in times of great difficulty.
A doctor should be nice to his patients, but there comes a time when the news he gives them is anything but nice.
Niceness is an appetizer. Charity is the banquet. Niceness has its place; but it should not displace charity. The great humanitarian temptation is to be ultra-nice to everyone, to refrain from offending them, or disturbing their complacency. Charity, synonym for love, however, is interested in the whole person, including his final beatitude. It rouses people from lethargy, and energizes them for their long journey back to God.

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(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest books, How to Navigate Through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com.)

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