Growing up, I regularly heard people encouraging me (and my peers) to be nice. Be nice to her. Use nice words. Let’s just be nice. He’s a nice person. She’s trying to be nice. I didn’t think much of the word. It was just a word that people used.
But then one day, Sir Ian McKellen changed that for me. Sir Ian was describing his Lord of the Rings co-star, Sir Christopher Lee. “He’s a nice man,” Sir Ian said before pausing. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”
I paused. Nice is a terrible thing to call a person? But I thought that nice meant, well, NICE. It’s pleasing and agreeable and good. Everyone is always telling us to be nice. What’s wrong with being nice?
The first two definitions aren’t terrible. They’re what I was used to. But let’s look at the third one. “Showing accuracy, precision, skill, tact, care, or delicacy.” That’s what Sir Ian was talking about. But if you keep reading, it gets worse.
Delicacy, finicky, and fastidious are all words that come up. These aren’t things that one wants to be called. But, according to the dictionary, that’s what being NICE is.
Now, you might be wondering why I’ve been thinking about this?
Blame Steven Sondheim.
For various reasons, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to Sondheim’s Into the Woods over the past several months. And when I’m not drooling over Meryl Streep’s gifts or Chris Pine’s partially bared chest, I’ve noticed a few things.
Little Red Riding Hood is the first one to really bring up the topic when she determines that the Wolf seems nice but despite that exterior is not actually good. Nice, according to Red’s presentation, has to do with appearances and the exterior. Good is what lies within a person. The Wolf had a charming or pleasing exterior, but he meant no good to Red or her grandmother. He used his niceness to manipulate others into doing what he wanted.
The Witch continues the conversation near the end of the play when she says “You’re not good. You’re not bad. You’re just nice.” Nice doesn’t solve problems-and these people are facing a giant problem. Nice might seek to place blame, but it doesn’t get rid of the problems. It doesn’t matter how it started; what matter is THAT it started. “I’m not good. I’m not nice. I’m just right.” The Witch sees the problem with being nice.
Nice is superficial. As I said when discussing Red’s song, it’s about appearances. Nice isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be, but it is superficial. It’s agreeable. It’s tactful and accurate and delicate. Those are useful things at times, but they don’t get rid of the Giant’s Wife. One of the themes of Into the Woods is the difference between the surface and the heart. Prince Charming says of himself at one point that he was “raised to be charming not sincere.” I once read or heard an interview in which Chris Pine (who plays Prince Charming) describes his character as two-dimensional.
Nice is fine for two-dimensional situations. But real life, as Pine seems to be aware in his commentary on his character, is not two-dimensional. Real life is multi-faceted. It really doesn’t matter whose fault it is that the Giant’s Wife has come out of the clouds. It’s not only one person’s fault. There is plenty of blame is spread around.
That’s real life. It’s multi-faceted. Most people are not just good or just bad. Nice isn’t always the answer because the heart of a person matters far more than the surface appearance. Inside, we are all imperfect. We are all to blame for some thing in this world. We all make mistakes. We all do and say things that hurt others. The scene from Wonder Woman linked above is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Steve Trevor (played by the above average Chris Pine) tries to explain that right and wrong are not simplistic things. Every person is responsible at some level for the darkness in this world. Maybe he personally didn’t cause World War I, but that doesn’t mean that he has led a life without any error or any harm to others.
That’s real life. Unlike Prince Charming, Steve Trevor is a sincere man who is trying to do more good than ill as he goes through life. He wants to leave the world a better place than he found it. But he also understands that human behavior and motivation are not black and white. Nothing is simple. Nice is not the answer. Tact has its uses. Accuracy has a place. Throwing the blame on others can feel good for a while. (NB: There’s a whole post about Ares that I could write from this point, but that’s for another day.)
But at the end of the day, we’re not meant to go through life like that. We are meant to leave this world better than we found it. That isn’t easy. The end of Into the Woods finds the main characters trying to figure out how to move forward with their lives. Their world has been changed by witches and magic beans and giants. But as the deceased Baker’s Wife reminds her husband, we do not move through life alone. No one is alone; we have friends, family, and other networks to help us to through the good and bad of life. Our lives impact those around us.
We need to think about how our lives impact others. Our actions and words impact others longer than we may realize. Niceness often is only beneficial in the short term. While it can be difficult, it’s important to think about how words and actions impact others in the long-term.
NB: I know that this post may make me seem like a huge Chris Pine fan. I assure you that it’s just mere coincidence that the two films that had the best support for my nice versus good argument also featured Chris Pine.