Don’t Be Nice!

The Buddha taught that compassion isn't just a nice virtue; it is essential to realizing enlightenment.

Some of us in ministry chose to go through something akin to pastoral boot camp called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE); I did an intensive 10-week internship at a 600-bed hospital and was responsible for oncology/blood disorders, medical intensive care, and the prison secure ward (when on-call I had the entire hospital). The pastoral-care minister (a.k.a. “chaplain”), sometimes a green neophyte pastor-in-training, is thrust into dramatic and sometimes critical existential situations of life and death; the intern is forced to grapple with his/her deepest anxieties. I chose an intensive program rather than the once-a-week program because it was a more instructive exposure and I could establish relationships with patients, staff, and families. In those 10 weeks my values and attitudes toward life and suffering, birth and death, courage and fear surfaced. Having completed chaplaincy training was an incredibly insightful and extraordinarily valuable experience and it gave new meaning to my understanding of my own faith traditions and my theology and pastoral ministries. But one of the most important insights was the ministry of helping others, reaching out and offering compassion. It wasn’t a “helping” as in the case of another being helpless but in the sense of a sort of midwife helping in a birth; the mother can do it on her own, sure, but the presence of the midwife is a ‘help.” In fact, in German widwife is translated Geburtshelfer, “birth helper.”

Most people in ministry, Christians but Catholics expecially, are taught to “be nice.” This four-letter word “nice” covers myriad lies and vast amounts of hypocrisy as long as you put on that appearance of “niceness.” Being “nice” ensures that most Christians are always grinning idiotically, tripping over themselves trying to be “helpful” to others, especially those who are poorer or less fortunate – frequently forgetting that they, too, have a sense of personhood and dignity and are not there to make Mr or Ms Nice feel “nice.” On the surface “nice” is what Christians are supposed to do and be about. Right? Guess again.

In the real world of living the Gospel, ‘niceness’  is a perversion of what the Holy Scripture calls “righteousness.” It’s a moral, ethical value. The righteous person seeks to do and to be what is fair and just and then does it; a righteous person also is proactive in preventing the what is unfair or unjust by making others aware of the unfairness or the injustice, its causes, and proposing ways to ensure justice. To reveal what is [un]fair and [un]just we are called to engage people about their experiences. We have to invest ourselves in the work of righteousness.

Being “nice” or helpful does not require an investment of the self.  Ask many of the lay ministers or church program volunteers whose motive is visibility or “power,” or the college students whose community service is really an effort to pad their résumé: “Look, I’m a community organizer.” They may be very “helpful” to the homeless they feed, the elderly they accompany, or children they tutor or the school program they are supervising. But these actions do not necessarily require any investment in a relationship that would ask questions about whether those served are being treated fairly and justly. A merely “nice” or helpful person will only deliver the turkey or teach a child to read. A righteous person will not stop there but ask why the elderly woman has no heat or why the fifth grader is reading at a second-grade level or why the people spend their days in the public library and their nights over subway grills to keep warm? Being “nice” may mean dropping a quarter into the cup or writing a check, and “helping” may require some investment of some time and energy but righteousness requires the investment of the entire self.

Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. (Mt 11:4,5) What did Jesus mean by this enumeration of good works? Was he saying he was just being “nice” or “helpful?” Not at all. He was describing how he was instrumental in those persons’ changing their self-perceptions, shifting their self-confidence, realizing their dignity. He was also making a statement and drawing attention to the “nice” people who passed them by and overlooked them because they were unimportant. Jesus was invested in those around him, everyone. He was invested in Peter’s mother-in-law when she was ill; he invested himself in the outcast Zacchaeus who needed an invitation to be included. The parable of the Righteous [not only “good”] Samaritan portrays a person willing to interrupt his plans, invest time and money and then even to follow through to see what else was needed. To say that just being “nice” and “helpful,” I believe is to trivialize the power of Jesus’ and every rightwous person’s life and ministry.

True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason.

When I was at the hospital I saw so many of my colleagues and volunteers trying to be “nice” and “helpful” to patients and family but they were using their positions as chaplains to wield power in a vainglorious attempt to banish suffering, not because they were being empathic but because they were uncomfortable with suffering, hadn’t experienced it before, didn’t have life experience, or were suffering so themselves, they needed to be immersed in the company of suffering; they needed to meet their own needs. The were, in fact, oblivious to their gift of relative good health, of the opportunity to be present and not necessarily doing or preaching or praying, oblivious to how their condescending remarks and cliché responses might have been perceived by someone actually in an existential crisis situation or faced with an end-of-life decision for a loved one!

I believe that good pastoral care requires the chaplain or chaplain intern to work in righteousness and righteousness requires that instead of being intrusively “nice” or “helping,” we need to be present for them, we need to feel with them (compassion). This means entering into relationship, accompanying someone as they walk through the dark areas of life, learning from them as to what is [un]fair and [un]just, and then investing our selves to work for a better world. Let’s forget about being “nice” or “helpful” altogether, reassess our motives and our authenticity (our true self), and make the change to righteousness. Today, let’s stop being “nice” and “helpful” and live and do righteousness.


Reallly, it's not!


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