Monday, February 27, 2006

Nice or Kind

I’m starting to realize that there’s a big difference between being nice and being kind. While the two may be manifest in similar types of actions, the distinction lies in the thought behind the actions. Nice has an element of artifice to it. Someone described as extremely nice might actually be considered phony or simply over-the-top in their friendliness. But you can never be too kind. Kindness has a genuineness and unmistakable sincerity about it. Kind is what I want to be.

Recently I learned that someone I just met doesn’t like me. Friends familiar with the situation console me that this person has undeniable issues that cloud the person’s ability to respond normally to others. Add to this the fact that the person doesn’t really know me—has had only a handful of experiences with me, in fact—and it is absolutely clear to everyone but me that I should disregard the animosity and move on. But it bothers me. First it bothers me that the person disliked me immediately. Do I make such a bad first impression? Then the reason the person gives others for not liking me is disturbing: I am too happy. Too happy? Huh?

I’ve agonized over the issue (obviously) and critiqued into the ground every interaction I’ve ever had with the person. Is happiness a problem? Do I smile too much? Am I too enthusiastic? Did I try a little too hard to make the person like me? And I’ve concluded that it all harks back to this issue: the difference between nice and kind.

I think what I’ve been to this person since the moment we met is nice. I’ve smiled big, complimented, inquired about the person’s life and interests, and overall assumed a chumminess and familiarity that could be nothing but artificial under the circumstances. After all, I hardly know the person. I’ve been relentlessly friendly despite unspoken but clearly perceived messages from the person and from others that friendliness might not be welcome. I believed myself the exception—niceness from me would be welcome, other just weren’t trying hard enough.

Well, then came the reality check: an outright rejection of me and my accursed friendliness. After a lot of reflection this is the only way I can wrap my mind around the response. The person is prickly and expects to be treated warily. Someone like me barreling in with my battering ram of niceness, trying to move through the thorny exterior is not only trespassing, but bound to get jabbed. So I got jabbed. I hope I’ll gain some wisdom from the experience.

Here’s what I’ve gotten so far. Don’t be too nice. A nice person exudes a certain impenetrable joviality and self-satisfaction that feels condescending from the receiving end. Someone who is nice to you doesn’t necessarily know you or like you. Niceness is centered on the needs of the person giving it and disregards the condition of the receiver. Niceness is impersonal.

Be kind instead. Kindess is more subdued. It is built on mutual experience; where experience is lacking, it is founded on empathy. Kindness requires knowing, understanding, and accepting. Kindness ponders both the heart and the situation of the receiver; the giver is only a conduit through whom the love of God can flow. Kindness is deeply personal. Kindness has love behind it.

I may have lost my chance to befriend this person who is so obviously in need of friends. I hope not. But I have learned for the future that where my sometimes superficial (though well-intentioned) niceness is unwelcome, kindness will likely never be rejected.


Monday, February 20, 2006

The Life of an Introvert

Sometimes, you just come along a quote that sums up your experience perfectly. Here is one that spoke to me, via Kevin Drum.

I marvel at [my extrovert friend] who can always somehow turn the conversation right over effortlessly and keep it going even when what he says is not necessarily profound or interesting. What he comes up with is perfectly tuned to the sense and flow of the conversation. But it's not words that are particularly intended to convey ideas or mean things. It's words that socialize — that simply continue the conversation. It's chit-chat. I have no gift for that. I have to think about what to say next, and sometimes I can't think fast enough and end up saying something stupid. Or sometimes I just come up dry and the conversation kind of ends for while until I can think of another topic.

This is why it's work for me. It takes positive cognition on my part. I think that's probably a core introvert characteristic that you and I have in common and which can probably be distinguished from shyness per se — that small talk takes conscious effort and is very hard work. There's nothing small about small talk if you're an introvert.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Emergency Rooms -- Hell on Earth

Over the past 8 months, Ellie and I have been to the emergency room 3 times. All three visits were caused by Nora. The first time, Nora scratched Ellie in the retina and we had to get her eye examined. The second time, Nora fell off the couch and hit her head on the coffee table (3 stiches). And just recently, Nora was apparently trying to climb up her closet, fell down, and nearly bit through her lip (3 stiches).

As we were waiting to be seen for the most recent accident, Ellie and I concluded that emergency rooms were hell on earth. It took us five hours to get in and out, which is actually fairly good compared to horror stories others have told us. The waiting in emergency rooms is interminable, the staff often uphelpful, and the cost astronomical.

Some observations:

1. Your wait time in an emergency room has little to do with how busy it seems. We once were pleased to find an empty emergency room, only to find that we still had to wait for several hours. We’ve also been repeatedly put on the “fast track,” which still entails a wait of several hours. (The “slow track” apparently is an all day experience.)

2. Ever notice how hardly anyone else in an emergency room appears to have an emergency? When we’ve gone, Ellie either had her eye bandaged or we’ve brought in a bloody and crying child. But everyone else in the waiting room has always seemed just fine. There were in our recent visit a few people who looked tired and a guy who was limping, but other that they hardly looked like they had emergencies. I’m sure all these people problems of some sort, but they never seem that way.

3. The staff never appears to be in any hurry. I’ve seen the doctors and nurses that were “caring” for us often just sitting in their offices or chatting with colleagues in the hallway, as we twiddled our thumbs waiting to be visited.

4. The division of labor is ludicrous. The attending physician can only do certain jobs apparently. The same with the residents, nurses, and nurses aides. We waited forever to get a cotton ball anesthetic taped to Nora’s lip. When it finally came to the person who was supposed to do that job, she didn’t know what she needed to do and she had to ask the nurse who then consulted the doctor. Why couldn’t the freaking doctor have simply taped on the cotton ball? Or at least have given me the stuff and gotten out of my way! Sheez.

When people say we Americans have got the greatest health care system in the world, I just think of crap like this.

Venting over.


New Dinosaur

So, Nora has been really interested in dinosaurs lately. She knows the names of all the major varieties. Recently, I was discussing with Ellie my "Philosophy of Education" course. Nora overheard our conversation and thought "philosophy" was the name of dinosaur, which she called the "philoso-raptor."

Heck, maybe such a dinosaur did exist. After all, some dinosaurs may have become reflective about their existence. They probably didn't last long though. Poor guys.


U2: Questions and Redemption

Throughout their "musical journey," U2 challenges the listener with a tension between the beauty of divine promises and the ugly realities human beings confront and inflict upon one another. In their early song, “October,” we are presented with the image of an autumn tree, stripped bare of life, bracing against the oncoming winter. The tree is immediately contrasted it with the glorious idea of an eternal, unchanging being who transcends death and winters (“Kingdoms rise / and kingdoms fall / but You go on, and on”). Much later, in his song “Peace of Earth,” Bono contrasts the Christmas promise of peace with ugly realities of human history: “Jesus this song you wrote / The words are sticking in my throat / Peace on Earth / Hear it every Christmas time / But hope and history won’t rhyme / So what’s it worth? / This Peace of Earth?”

Within such a framework of glorious, but seemingly forever deferred promises of redemption, U2 seems to suggest that questioning can be an act of faith. Thus, their song “Wake up dead man” becomes a simultaneous act of affirmation and questioning: “Jesus / I’m waiting here boss / I know you’re looking out for us / but maybe your hands aren’t free.” Taken to an extreme, this attitude culminates in the rather sympathetic portrayal of Judas Iscariot in U2’s masterpiece song, “Until the End of the World.” Judas seems to say to his betrayed Lord: “In my dream I was drowning sorrows / But my sorrows they learned to swim … / In waves of regret, wave of joy / I reached out for the one I tried to destroy / You, you said you’d wait until the end of the world.” Judas, acknowledging guilt, reaches out to someone who, thankfully, has deferred final judgment into the future. The eternally deferred redemption allows for an eternally possible repentance – if only we can bring ourselves to do it.

The spiritual elevation of questions, confusion, and doubt, however, is matched by an equally strong celebration of divine promises. U2, follow up their questioning refrain of “Peace on Earth” with a gentle ballad called “Grace.” In this song, Grace, personified as a divine female force, quietly works to clean up the messes of human life: “What once was hurt / What once was friction / What left the mark / No longer stings / Because Grace makes beauty / Out of ugly things.”

So, how does one navigate a theology that simultaneous celebrates divine promises with one that recognizes (as we must recognize) that the fulfillment of such promises is often delayed or absent? Bono’s answer is simply to wait, to seek, and to persist. “If you walk away, I will follow,” Bono proclaims, betraying an attitude persistent, even stubbornness, in awaiting a forever-not-yet-arrival of a redeeming Messiah. Even if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, there is spirituality in the quest itself.

The latest album sums up the spirituality of questioning, the acknowledgement of forever deferred redemption, and the value of persistent waiting. In the last song, “Yahweh,” Bono calls out for help in transforming himself into something better (“Take these hands / Teach them what to carry”), and then slurs the divine name to sound very much like a repeated chant of “Yeah I’ll wait.”

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before the Child is born
Yahweh, tell me now
Why the dark before the dawn?