Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Niceness and Belonging

Yesterday was a good one for stillness and quiet. A few thoughts came to me along the way.

I mentioned in my homily on Sunday the idea of 'niceness' and called it a modern pseudo-virtue. My reflection on this pseudo-virtue reminded me of a dream I had shortly before I entered the monastery. I was at a party with Christians. It reminded me of Intervarsity Fellowship groups in college, though I won't hold that group responsible for what happened in the dream, and attribute it instead to the connection of the vague uprootedness of college existence (I will explain). I was never a big party person, and in the dream I felt rather awkward and out of place. At some point, for reasons I forget, I presumptuously (though probably accurately) announced to the group, doing my best Holden Caulfield impression, "You say that you are Christians, but this has nothing to do with following Christ. This is all about making yourselves feel good by phony flattery." This didn't go over very well. A group of people charged me and pinned me to a wall, while a man in the group knifed me.

While my tact in real life may be slightly more subtle than in the dream, this whole phenomenon in the Church is one that continues to exercise my sense of curiosity. "Encourage one another and build one another up [1 Thess 5: 11]." Do we confuse Christian compassion and encouragement with being nice?

Etymologically, 'nice' derives from the Latin ne-scire, not to know. In English, it originally connoted wantonness and vice. How did it come to have the bland sense of generic kindness it now enjoys? I call the kindness 'generic' because what seems to me to be the deficiency in the goal of being nice is that niceness often accompanies the avoidance of genuine, specific human problems by papering them over with a sort of habitual cheeriness that may or may not address particular suffering. By contrast, compassion is shown especially in messy contact with those who are needy.

What further distinguishes this pseudo-virtue for me is that it can mask itself precisely as concern for the poor and disenfranchised. "Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect [RB 53: 15]." So there is St. Benedict's contribution to Christianity's 'preferential option for the poor,' a genuine Christian imperative. However, in dealing with the poor, do we seek truly to receive Christ in them, to serve them, or do we seek rather to be their benefactors and build up a kind of coterie of supporters and well-wishers, starting with those less fortunate (or less self-confident) than we?

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict alludes to this temptation. "Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift."

This last idea: that we cannot limit ourselves to giving others 'something that is my own' touches on the difficulty I am trying to articulate here. If I may propose a distinction, the Holy Father here is promoting Christians caritas and compassion or solidarity; niceness gives others of our abundance of personality and not of our bios [literally 'life', the gift of the widow's mite in Mark 12: 44--read this passage again with 'wealth/poverty in spirit in the background, and see what happens]. So giving, to be real Christian giving, should be something that stretches and shares something of our human frailty with others. In this way, we build solidarity with others. We avoid gathering others around our shiny persona and instead honestly and humbly offer who we are in fact.

One of the great poverties of our time is existential, and this fact contributes to the difficulty in extricating ourselves from the co-dependencies that pock our efforts at demonstrating Christian compassion. Few people today are perfectly at home where they are. In the workforce, many jobs require us to prove ourselves over and over again, to move forward or get left behind in the great sweep of human progress. We are warned against 'settling' for certain kinds of friends or spouses, and so we become serial companions. We expect divorce, defections from the ministry and religious life and double-crossing. From another angle, if I say that I am a Roman Catholic monk and priest, this will evoke certain images in some minds and radically different ones in others--and this variation will show up even among Roman Catholic ordained monks! In other words, I can't even simply feel at home in my own vocation. I have to carve out an identity among many choices: liberal/conservative; active/contemplative; Romantic (Solesmesian)/Classical (pre-Cluny); Latin/vernacular, ad infinitum. This has been one of the more distressing aspects of becoming a more public sort of person. I had naively thought that becoming a monk removes one from popularity contests. Not so in the modern world, not so! Special-interest groups will pressure you to enter their niche by being nice if you conform ("I really love Latin!"), mean if you don't (All that incense at the monastery gives me the creeps. It's like the Middle Ages!).

One should always resist getting caught up in such contests, but it is not the easiest thing to do. We are all in roughly the same boat, and we tend to compensate for our existential non-belonging, muddling through by gritting our teeth and trying to be...nice.

(footnote: Ithe muddle I have in mind was suggest by the quintessential 'nice' song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," preferably as crooned by Barbara Streisand)

The monastic answer for this is not popular. It is obedience. My connection to my abbot is my lifeline. He of course will ask me to do things that will cut against the grain (that is, if he himself resists being 'nice' and actually requires obedience!). I may feel like I am in the wrong place. But if I give in to this temptation, say, by leaving the monastery (my abbot/community wasn't nice!), I exacerbate the problem by reintroducing that lack of stability into life. By perseverance, I will come to see my identity as connected very much to God through the community and the abbot. Thus, another way to speak of this is in terms of commitment. The existential malaise of the present begs to be solved, not by everyone pretending nothing is wrong and smiling and passing the donuts and telling fish stories, but by a Church-centered decision to discern the will of God and stick to it and stick with one another. In most cases, this will require us at some point to confront what really matters: is it pushing a liberal or conservative agenda, or is it suffering with Jesus Christ and learning to depend on God's grace? Is it carving out a niche for myself, or is it serving others?

This also requires those in authority to lead. So often, out of fear of not being perceived as 'nice' priests and ministers abdicate their authority. Sometimes this happens slowly, by trying to involve others in decision-making, a good thing in itself, but a difficult process to keep from being derailed. It happens with some frequency that a parish board of some type gets hijacked by persons who prove to be 'nicer' than Father, at least as judged by the constituency of the parish. So Father is stuck either letting go of decision-making responsibility or trying to impose better order and losing his existential bearings, as happens when one is disowned for being 'mean'. This is not to argue against lay participation in parish decisions, only to point out that this has to be centered on Jesus Christ and true belonging, even when it is costly. Otherwise, it will be a quiet struggle for power based on the ease of manipulating others (the rest of the parish in this case) who are faltering in their commitments, but who can be made to feel as if they belong if someone comes along with donuts, fish stories and bright smiles.

It is this acquisitiveness that separates niceness from compassion (which, after all is 'co-suffering'). That niceness is ultimately about power is corroborated by the tendency of 'nice' people (in this sense) to be comparatively mean toward authority, claiming that it is incompetent or untrustworthy.

This is not the most coherent piece I've written, and I earnestly welcome comments, questions, rebukes. Only, if you do have something negative to write, be nice! Just kidding.


Meredith said...

You've hit on my favorite Latin derivation!
I do wonder how one might go without the "niceties" and successfully navigate a social or business world. Does it lie in the difference between "niceness" and "kindness"?

ThomasLB said...

I had naively thought that becoming a monk removes one from popularity contests.

I dropped out of high school when I was fifteen, and I remember telling someone, "All the nonsense is behind me!" (I didn't really say "nonsense," I just don't want to swear in front of a monk.) I found out later the nonsense was just beginning. I'm glad nobody told me- I would have been inconsolable.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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