Fathom Mag

I’ve been nice, but now I am ready to be kind.

Published on:
August 1, 2023
Read time:
5 min.
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One by one, we pile into a tiny New York apartment. Squealing hellos and calling out names, we shed scarves and coats and flaunt our red cheeks still stinging from the December night. The cold glinting off the glass of a hundred skyscrapers can’t reach us here. We settle into our various positions: curling up on the floor, tucking socked feet under knees on the sofa, draping limbs over upholstered chairs. We decorate the room like a crowd of muses, or so we’d like to think. We whip out journals and pens and iPhones to serve as writing utensils and canvases. Someone shares the writing prompts for tonight. “Pick one of the following: write about the feeling of being a child on Christmas Eve, or respond to this sentence: ‘My 2023 New Year’s resolutions are . . .’” 

We have ten minutes. I pick the latter prompt and get to writing:

I am resolved this year,
To make some enemies
To risk and keep on risking until
I’ve reached the edge of propriety,
Until I am tripping dangerously on the cliff side of courage.
I am resolved to stray so far from niceness
That I fall head-first off the ledge
Careening farther and farther from other people’s opinions,
From the sweet little church girl who haunts me;
The silent, agreeable one
Who subtly partners with lies
Until they become a part of her.
Hello new year, lets find
More ways to rage
With holy fire
To burn up, go to ashes
Grow wings again

We take turns reading our ten-minute creations out loud. After I read mine, one of the muses dubs the next year of my life my “enemies era.” A chorus of laughter and agreeable screams follows. 

I take her words as my battle cry. Because I’m beginning to be revolted by niceness—most of all, my own. 

I attend Church of the City in New York, and in a recent sermon, my pastor, Jon Tyson, looked out at the congregation and said, “Some of you are nicer than Jesus.” I had one of those moments where a sentence slams you right in the gut. 

The etymology and meaning of words are fascinating to me, and as I contemplated why exactly I was beginning to be horrified by niceness, I decided to do a quick search on nice. I found the seemingly simple word has a complex history.

Nice couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and rather than meaning something, it began to mean nothing at all.

Nice is a slippery word.  

It originated in Latin (nescius meaning “ignorant”) but traveled through Middle English and Old French before landing in our Modern English vocabulary.[1] The meaning of the word changed drastically as it traversed langues and centuries. In Old French, “nice” meant “stupid.” In English, from before the thirteenth century to the present day, “nice” spent time cloaked in a myriad of definitions: timid, fainthearted, fussy, fastidious, dainty, delicate, precise, careful, agreeable, delightful, thoughtful, kind.[2] 

Nice couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and rather than meaning something, it began to mean nothing at all. Today, nice has become a throw-away word, an anemic thing. It doesn’t have the strength to hold our weighty moments, and yet, we so often ask it to. That garden, this building, the spring morning weather, the socks at the Target dollar stop. That family, my next-door neighbor, that man holding the door open for the long line of people at the movie theater—all of it finds its way under the umbrella of nice. And when it comes to describing people and their most charitable actions, niceness prevails to the point of elbowing out its stronger sister—kind. 

Almost any thesaurus will list “nice” as a substitute for “kind.” But I’ve always thought of kindness as a thing with teeth. And a spine. The toned arms of goodness. Something that grips, holds on when things get tough, does the right thing, says the right thing, even when others disagree. Kindness cares, not just about feelings but about the ultimate good. 

The etymology of the English word kind traverses history as well but it also boasts a biblical definition. I traveled with the word kind through the scriptures starting with the first instance that came to mind;  Paul’s words in Ephesians 4: “Be kind and compassionate to one another . . .”

The Greek word used in the original letter is chrestos, which Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible defines as usefulness, moral excellence, gentleness, goodness.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, kind describes God with the same Greek word, chrestos. Titus 3:4, for example: “But when the kindness of God our savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us . . .” 

I turned to the Old Testament next, where God is described as full of lovingkindness. The word in Hebrew is checed. It’s used in various contexts in the Old Testament, but when referring to God, it speaks of his condescension to provide for the needs of the people he loves. 

And all this untangling of old languages and histories and letterforms coming together on pages and forming off of tongues brought me to this: Niceness serves me. Niceness makes people like me. But kindness? Kindness is sacrifice for the service of others. 

Niceness serves me. Niceness makes people like me. But kindness? Kindness is sacrifice for the service of others.

I think back to the poem I wrote last December and a few things are thrown into a new light. I realize that the reason I love the women in that room so much is because they’ve been so incredibly kind to me. I remember one particularly difficult day when I was experiencing heartbreak over a relationship, and I met up with one of those women for dinner. Without a second thought, she paid for our meal and two drinks and then, when we realized my phone was dying, called me an Uber and put me in it herself. We stood on the street in the dark, both a little tipsy from the gin, and she gave me a hug, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Remember, one day all of this pain will be ancient history.” 

Nice is an insufficient word for these types of friendships. It was her kindness that night that allowed her to put aside her own troubles and care for me.

At different points in my life kindness has looked like a stranger buying me banana bread when he noticed me crying in a coffee shop. He left a note on the paper bag that said, “You are young and beautiful and it’s Christmas.” 

It looked like my sister waiting for me to wake up from a nap so we could eat our snacks together when we were kids. As an adult, it tasted like the cookies she sent me on Valentine’s Day when we lived on opposite sides of the country and neither of us had a date. 

Kindness appeared like my dad coming alongside me while I was competing in a mini-triathlon. Eight years old and only yards away from the finish line, exhaustion began to overtake me. I slowed my pace to a walk, tears welling in my eyes. Dad came over and leaned in close. “Come on Sarah Janie, you can do this! You can do it!” In true competitive-Dad form, he pointed to the girl not too far ahead of me whose strength was also waning. “You can beat that girl!” 

And I did. I beat her and I got a bronze medal. That day my father’s kindness reached out and taught me something about perseverance and hope and little victories that have big implications for the rest of our lives. 

I was in church a few weeks ago, exhausted from a series of accumulating disappointments, and it was this memory of the triathlon and my father that came to mind. And I wonder if this is what kindness does for us in the end. Surpassing counterfeit comforts, it provides a jolt of energy to finish the race set before us—to build the kind of muscles that carry us past nice into God’s kingdom of kindness.

Sarah Jane Souther
Sarah Jane Souther is a full-time graphic designer and a part-time writer who lives in Manhattan. She started a writing collective about unrequited love called Unfortunately, i Love You. You can read more of her writing at unfortunatelyiloveyou.com and on Substack at uily.substack.com.

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/nice-multiple-meanings#:~:text=Nice%20comes%20from%20the%20Latin,ending%20up%20in%20Modern%20English

[2]  https://www.etymonline.com/word/nice

Cover image by Jon Tyson.

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