Apologizing for Simply Existing
I was crossing the street in a small town one day, walking towards the entrance to a restaurant. A lone man was standing in front of the restaurant, between me and the door but at least five feet away from it. There was plenty of room for me to pass by him. Nonetheless, as I approached the area where he stood, he stepped away and said “Sorry” as I passed by. I cannot imagine why he was sorry unless he judged from my facial expression or demeanour that I was suffering in some way because of something he had done.
There were at least three body widths between us and he had not been blocking my path. He was being neither unpleasant nor threatening, nor was he disturbing me in any way, so he had no reason to excuse himself. Yet this nice man not only moved but also apologized as he did so. If he had been unpleasant, blocked my way, or called me names I would have wished for him to be nice, but that was not the case. The man apologized simply for being there.
Covering the Bald Spots
Every year at the end of November, my husband, Ike, and I load the kids in the car and drive to the nearest Christmas tree lot. We are committed “real tree” people—not to be confused with “fake tree” people who keep their trees stored in a box—so the hunt for the perfect tree is one we anticipate and enjoy every year. No matter where we live or how busy we are, we set aside time to visit a farm or a store in order to make our pick. Ike, the kids, and I painstakingly inspect every single option, examine them for gaps, assess their sizes, and scan for brown spots.
Then, after we have made our choice, Ike hoists the tree on top of our car, ties it down, and drives us home. Once we get back to the house, we carefully mount the tree on the stand and carry it inside, trying to scatter as few needles as possible. For the rest of the night, the sap on our fingers attracts dirt, hair, fuzz, and other light debris. I don’t like the mess and I don’t like the hassle, but it’s a hassle we are happy to endure.
Nothing beats the smell of Fraser fir filling the air, and nothing transports Ike and me to our childhood Christmases quite like the glow of a fresh tree in our home. At least, that is how it normally goes. Several years ago our Norman Rockwell moment was not to be. Ike and I bought a discount tree at a local store. That was probably our first mistake. The tree had several bald patches and multiple brown spots. The branches were dry and the needles prickly. We should have read the signs, but I was optimistic. I thought I could hide the gaps with some faux poinsettias and no one would be the wiser. So we took the tree home. For the first few days, the tree was stunning. I loaded it with ornaments, ribbons, and pearls. It was shiny, full, and smelled like an evergreen forest. It was probably the most aromatic tree we’ve ever had.
All was well except for one niggling concern: the tree wasn’t taking any water. If you have ever purchased a real tree, you know they guzzle water, especially at first, and especially after the lights have been weighing on their branches for a while. But not this one. Every time I checked the stand, the water level had barely dropped. That’s when I suspected something wasn’t quite right. Not long after, the branches were drying out, and the needles became so thorny I flinched to brush against them.
And the smell that I loved so much? Over time the scent of evergreen was replaced with a musty, rotten odor. That was when it became clear: our tree wasn’t just a dud. Our tree was dead. That was a disappointing year in the Miller home. We decided to keep the tree for those remaining days before Christmas, but whenever I passed by it, I was reminded of something I had missed amid all the Christmases before. No matter how much you dress up a “real tree,” no matter how much you cover it in family heirlooms, silver bells, tinsel, and lights, a Christmas tree is still a dying tree. And this, I realized, was a tree-shaped sermon about my life.
…For many of us, that Christmas tree is our story. We look great, our church looks great, everything seems fine. Until the day we pull back the branches and discover the sickness hiding within. Underneath all the ministry commitments, the Christian conferences, the growing churches, the bestselling books, and the uplifting social media posts, there is fear. There is pride. There is a need to control. There is self-preservation in place of generosity. Defensiveness in place of humility. Silence in place of boldness. Shouting in place of listening. Cynicism in place of hope.
We can hide all of these things behind the ornaments of nice Christianity, which allows them to exist undetected for years. These ornaments do not simply mask the sickness, they contribute to it as well. The baubles that decorate brittle branches also weigh them down. The lights that obscure a tree’s dehydration dry it out faster. Niceness does the same. Our need to be nice, our need to be liked, our commitment to the appearance of being a certain kind of Christian all become a burden that our increasingly weary souls must bear. Abiding in niceness instead of abiding in Christ wilts our souls at the same time it gives us the appearance of life.
The Idol of Niceness
The idol of niceness refers to the ways we make ourselves pleasant, agreeable, acceptable, or likable in order to get something. We use niceness to achieve belonging or avoid conflict, but we also use it to amass influence and power. We use niceness to succeed in the workplace or to manage the way people perceive us. Niceness has incredible weight in our culture—both inside and outside the church—and although few of us would admit to using it so slickly (and we maybe haven’t been aware that we are until now), many of us do.
Niceness motivates us, reassures us, and promises greater ease in our social interactions. It is also the reason our message is uncompelling and our witness limp. Niceness is a false form of spiritual formation that has crept into the church, seduced Jesus’s followers, and taken much of the power out of our lives. It is one of our generation’s favorite idols, and it is high past time to name it.
A Short History of Niceness
I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that niceness has a hold on us, but in order to understand why that is, it helps to understand how it came to be. Like many words, nice has meant different things at different times. Its meaning has evolved throughout the centuries, dating as far back as 1604 when the word nice was featured in the first dictionary of the English language, Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall. There it is defined as “‘slow and laysie,’ and its origins are deemed unequivocally French.”
In her book American Niceness, author Carrie Tirado Bramen explains that early on, nice had a variety of meanings. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nice was “an ambiguous term that could be either an insult or a compliment, referring to someone who was either ostentatiously or elegantly dressed.”
However, by the early 1800s, its meaning had shifted again to simply mean pleasing.4 In addition to this positive definition, nice has also carried with it a connotation of silence. In her book The Tyranny of Niceness, psychologist Evelyn Sommers traces the word back to its Latin roots and shares this insight. When we fail to express our thoughts and opinions or refuse to hear what others say . . . There is a shutting down—or silencing—of oneself or the other. In this way, silence, in some form or degree, is the essential characteristic of being nice.
Without getting too abstract, I think this is a really fascinating way of describing niceness. Niceness is not necessarily what you do (being kind, showing love, acting generously) but what you don’t do (not speaking your mind, not saying hard things, not challenging injustice). In short, nice is the social equivalent of wallpaper. It’s dressing up the walls without providing any furniture to sit on. Even so, our culture gives niceness a tremendous amount of weight.
Almost illogically so. I can’t imagine walking into a house and declaring, “The roof is leaking and the foundation is crumbling but the wallpaper! I’ll take it!” And yet that is the kind of priority we give to niceness. That is how greatly we value it in our social interactions and how we assess other people: Were they nice? And more specifically: Were they nice to me? The prioritization of niceness takes two distinct forms: one in our broader culture and one in the church. In our broader culture, niceness is a false virtue, and in the church it is a false idol. Let’s begin with the first.
To be nice means to silence ourselves in some way, and in doing so, we compromise our authenticity and give up freedom to act and speak. On the other hand, niceness may facilitate the shedding of responsibility. When we teach children to be nice we may put them at risk. Trusting others who are nice, or appear to be nice, may not always be in our best interests.
A “Nice” Family
A woman and her six-year-old daughter were found dead in their neat, orange brick suburban home. The husband and father had murdered them and attempted to take his own life. He was found unconscious alongside his family. Quoted in the newspaper report, a neighbour commented, “They were a really nice family — they were a happy family….” The news that the man killed his wife and daughter, then attempted suicide, drops uneasily into the slot beside the image of this “nice” family.
How could both the perception and the event possibly be true? It seems illogical and frightening that a nice family could come to such a horrible end. This family was like millions of others who present one face to the public and keep a very different one hidden. They present an image of niceness, maintaining a false connection to the outside world while living lives of anguish and disconnection from each other, and themselves, in private.
Sometimes the bubble of niceness bursts, as it did with this family, and then the extent of the superficiality is revealed. More often, people resign themselves to living undramatic lives, which Thoreau described as “quiet desperation,” lives that result in compromises to their health, safety, and happiness. Although we are healthier when we live authentic, open lives, we hide because we think we must in order to be considered nice. We have learned to be nice in order to be accepted by others. The price of such acceptance can be a sense of alienation from oneself.