Is Love Nice?

Elisabethufer (1913) Ernst Ludog Kirchner. Public Domain.
Elisabethufer (1913) Ernst Ludog Kirchner. Public Domain.

These sorts of pieces often begin by letting the reader know where the word “nice” comes from. As a medievalist, I especially should delight in bringing this little bit of half-forgotten knowledge to light. It comes to us from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant” (itself coming from “nescire,” “to not know”) by way of French. By the late 12th century, it meant “silly” or “stupid.” One can observe its transition from its initial meaning to the one we know today in this passage from Jane Austen:

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.” (Northanger Abbey)

This fact is often taken up in what might be termed our “nice wars” (such a wonderful coinage on my part, I know). On the one hand, there’s a slew of pieces, especially in Christian circles committed to the destruction of “niceness.” Sometimes, “love the sinner and not the sin is invoked.” Other times, the whole point seems to be that love cannot avoid sometimes being mean. There’s also a whole secular culture committed to this. At some level, this makes sense. I know for a fact that I care too much about what others’ think. Being nice can thus effectively be a way to escape the possibilities of betrayal and deferred pain:

Why do we do this? Because for many of us, we have wrongly believed that being “nice” is akin to being “godly.” We don’t want to ruffle feathers, we don’t want to bend the rules, we don’t want to speak honestly and we don’t want to say no. Why do we do this to ourselves? Because we’re too nice, hiding under the guise of our faith and performing duties that suck the life out of us all because we somehow think this is how God would want us to live.

Yet by examining the life of Jesus, the Son of God, we see that sometimes Jesus did things that were not “nice” yet fulfilled God’s purpose, a much higher calling than people pleasing will ever be. (Eric Hoke)

Typically this tack is followed up, rather understandably, by citations of Jesus’ many moments of seeming unkindness (there are quite a few examples, so take your pick, though phrases like “you brood of vipers” make the point well enough).

Of course, there exists a counter-perspective that emphasizes kindness or niceness. It’s less overt in Christian circles (though I think many would impute it to, say, Pope Francis). In secular-utilitarian terms, it’s everywhere:

If you’re kind to other people, then most of the time they’re being kind to you too. Kindness brings out cooperative nature out of us and that’s good.

You basically increase your chances of being liked, of gaining what you want, you fill your car with the fuel and you’re good to go.

The fuel to keep going – that’s kindness.

That’s all the good stuff that you get from being kind.

I’m not talking about external stuff.

You get internal stuff – joy, happiness, excitement, a sense of contribution.

Of course, just like anything else Everything has a ” Dark side “.

Oh no.

Some people take your kindness for granted and when you give it to someone who doesn’t appreciate it you get fucked up. Taken advantage of.

Your fuel turns into alcohol and instead of going forward you are stuck.

Stuck like a tree. But you’re no tree.

You realize that kindness should be given freely to everybody because it is YOU who changes, YOU who gets the fuel, but those that take it and need it get the good stuff too.

How awesome.

Everybody deserves it.  Even those that ” do not deserve it “.

We don’t know their stories. We can’t be them and see what they have experienced, what they have seen and felt. What shaped them into who they are.

Kindness should be shown to everybody, but walk away from those that reject it and intend to screw you up.

(Rička Stan)

To my mind, both of these takes are wrong. The former misunderstands that love is rarely, if ever, “mean.” It may occasionally demand unpleasant-ness or put one in an awkward situation. That much is true. We are to expect persecution for being Christians after all; at some fundamental level, we simply cannot hope to please everyone.

But this does not mean that love, that is, the Christian way, is ever “mean.” Rather, it remains open to the fact of our sinfulness. It cries (with St. Andrew of Crete):

Him Whom the hosts of heaven glorify, Whom the Cherubim and Seraphim dread,
let every breath and creature praise, bless and magnify
throughout all ages.
Have mercy on us, O God, have mercy on us.

As the prostitute broke her priceless jar of myrrh to anoint Your head, O Saviour, so do I weep before You with a broken and contrite heart. Hear my prayer; forgive and have mercy on me.

I am the first and greatest of sinners, O patient Saviour, but I cry to You in fear and love, “Though I have sinned against You alone, and done evil in Your sight, nevertheless have mercy on me!”

Spare me, O my Saviour, for I am the work of Your own hands. Seek me, Your lost sheep, O Good Shepherd, and deliver me from the jaws of the wolf including me as a lamb in Your royal fold.

O most-merciful Christ, when You ascend Your dread tribunal as judge, all of creation will be overcome with fear and tremble, for on that day Your glory will be revealed as a blazing fire.

O venerable Mary of Egypt, pray to God for us.

The mother of the never-ending Sun enlightened you and freed you from the darkness of your passions. Since now you rejoice in the grace of the Spirit, O Mary, illumine all who praise you in faith.

O venerable Mary of Egypt, pray to God for us.

Zosimas the Elder marveled meeting you, O Mother, for in you he saw an earthly angel. Filled with awe he praises Christ forever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

O eternal Father, co-eternal Son, and gracious Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, O Father of the Divine Word, Word of the eternal Father, and life-creating Spirit, Trinity in unity, have mercy on us.

Now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

O pure Virgin, the flesh of Emmanuel was formed within your womb as a robe of royal crimson in spun from scarlet silk. We proclaim you to be truly the Mother of our God.

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