by Sonia C. Solomonson
“Why do we have to read about these awful things in our church magazine?” “Why are you beating up on our clergy?” “She certainly can’t be blameless in all this.” “We want to be inspired by our magazine, not fed trash like this.”
These were some of the comments we editors received at The Lutheran magazine when we began doing stories in the 1990s on clergy sexual abuse and particularly when we did a special in-depth look at the topic in 2002.
As managing editor, I had done extensive interviews with survivors of such abuse, and there was nothing nice about their painful, horrific and sometimes violent stories. I cried my own tears as I heard their stories and wiped their tears. I always prayed that their sharing might provide another piece of healing for them even as it attempted to heal the church of a dark stain that had gone unaddressed for decades.
The stories needed to be told so the abuse could be understood and stopped—an effort taken on by what was then the ELCA Commission for Women. Averting our eyes and pretending these things never happened wouldn’t help victims heal. Nor would it help congregations trying to recover (even when many members wanted to simply forget about it or even blame the victims). Averting our eyes surely wouldn’t stop the guilty clergy from continuing to abuse. It didn’t serve the vast majority of clergy either—people who would never think of doing such harm. We followed the story through to where it needed to go rather than to where we thought it should go. And it wasn’t pretty. It was uncomfortable and painful. But it was the good thing to do to renew the church.
Speaking the truth isn’t always nice. But it is the good and right thing to do. Let’s take a deeper look at the differences.
A word lacking precision
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary contains several different definitions for “nice,” including “pleasing, agreeable, proper, coy, shy or reluctant.” In fact, the definitions included such things as “foolish” and “stupid,” which came from Old French usage. The dictionary went so far as to say that “the word has become, through overuse, a cliché lacking precision and intensity.”
The word “good,” on the other hand, is defined as “morally excellent, virtuous, not counterfeit, healthful, beneficial, competent or skillful, clever,” among other things.
So the reporting we did at The Lutheran could be called good because it helped move the church to a more healthful, morally excellent place. We were doing our job as good reporters should—digging down to get the story even when it wasn’t nice. What we found wasn’t pretty; it didn’t present a nice side to the church we all knew and loved. We were working with the Commission for Women and all those other officials and groups who wanted to make the church a safe place for everyone.
The causes you take on as Women of the ELCA aren’t nice, warm and fuzzy topics either: racism, domestic violence, commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. But God calls us to speak for those on the margins and to be about justice. It is good that we do so.
Bringing the nice/good subject closer to home, I’m certain that we can all think of times when we have had to speak openly and honestly to someone we loved even when that word of truth wasn’t nice to hear—and it didn’t feel nice to speak it, either.
Have you ever done an intervention on someone you loved? That doesn’t feel nice for either party. But when you have helped someone you love move to a healthier place in life, that’s the good part.
Or have you had to call out someone in an organization of which you are part because that person was acting from bigotry or hatred and was doing harm to others? That doesn’t feel nice either. But the greater good is served when you find your voice and move beyond nice.
Truth-telling takes courage
Perhaps you have had to move beyond nice in your own life, too. You may have had to get honest and real, sharing your story of addiction or something in your past that wasn’t nice—that didn’t show you in the best light. To move toward healing, you had to speak what wasn’t pretty. The process was messy and ugly. But it was the door that led to health and healing for you. It takes courage to do truth-telling and to move beyond old tapes and messages.
What messages did you hear about being nice as you grew up? I grew up in a time when girls, especially, were taught to be nice—in other words, dress, speak and behave in a way that doesn’t offend or call attention to yourself. This was a time when girls weren’t supposed to be smart and weren’t supposed to speak up. I learned to hold back, to not raise my hand in class if I knew the answer before a boy did and to not speak my mind. I learned to try pleasing others, to do what others thought I should do. It took me years to move beyond those messages—to be authentic and trust my inner knowing. It’s much easier now, but I’m still learning to be real, to stand up and speak up. Authenticity is a high value for me now.
Interestingly, when I asked both women and men their thoughts on the difference between nice and good, I learned that many men deal with the same dilemma. One man told me the message about being nice “shut him down.” He didn’t say or do things he wanted to because he was unsure what people would think. He lived in fear of offending someone. Another man said he still feels guilty when he doesn’t do what’s expected, and he feels resentful when he does what he thinks others want.
One man said he sees the difference between nice and good as their origins—being nice comes from the mind and being good comes from the heart. That idea resonates with me since I see attempts to be nice as coming from all the old messages and tapes that run through our minds. Being good grows out of what our hearts tell us to do, however. Being good is God’s love flowing through us, finding expression in words and deeds of compassion.
I heard fascinating responses from several women, too:
• “I feel awful and guilty when I say what needs to be said to someone, and I feel resentful when I do something that should be done, but that I don’t want to do. I’m not being wholehearted.”
• “I was in my 50s before I quit being a people-pleaser, which is where nice leads.”
• “Nice means don’t rock the boat—which means you can’t stand up for yourself. It means not taking risks.”
• “Behaving in ways that are good in the sight of God may not always agree with what people want you to do for their comfort. God tells us to ‘speak the truth with love.’”
• “Being nice often meant don’t embarrass your parents.”
• “Nice is short-term and less positive, but good is long-term and broader.”
• “Nice means lending a hand when it’s convenient. But a good person will stop what they are doing or change their plans to help a stranger without thinking about the consequences.”
• “Good emerges from a deeper well of kindness and concern for the larger community, whereas nice tends to be more self-preserving.”
And from Inez Torres Davis, who does anti-racism training for Women of the ELCA, comes this acronym: NICE means Nothing Is Critically Examined. Yes, just as the opening story about clergy sexual abuse revealed, if we worry about being nice, we won’t take a deep look at things that need light shined on them for the sake of an overall good.
Truth-telling is messy
It’s exactly what our Bible study author says: “What if being part of God’s renewal today means not just wading into the messiness yourself, but being willing to create discomfort for those you love? What truths need to be told in the places you live, work, worship and play? Are you ready?”
She points out that nice avoids conflict and says things are OK when they’re not. “But Good knows there are more important things than your reputation, your balance sheet and whatever else it is you count on to make you comfortable. … Good does what matters.”
As Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary pointed out, the word nice lacks precision. So it is that to some people, nice bespeaks kindness and respect. For that reason, some women responded to my question about nice vs. good in this way:
• “To be nice is to cause no discomfort to others, regardless of the discomfort it may evoke in you.”
• “Being nice means not being mean, rude, sarcastic. Why make someone feel less valued, uncomfortable or sad?”
• “Being nice means having manners and considering other people’s feelings. Nice is encompassed by the idea of good because I can’t imagine being nice without also being good.”
One can’t argue with those sentiments. Perhaps, however, we can find different terms to express them—terms that are more precise. Perhaps the words “kindness” and “respect” carry more specificity. We do well to remember that the choice isn’t either nice or nasty. There’s a lot on the continuum between those two. We can speak the truth in love.
At any rate, it is good for us to think about the baggage that the word nice seems to carry around with it and to reflect on the differences between the two words, nice and good. For we want to act boldly on our faith and follow the examples set for us by all those brave Women of the ELCA members, past and present, who have showed up, stood up and spoken up for justice and for the care of all God’s creation.
So goodbye, nice. Hello, good.
Sonia C. Solomonson is a life coach with Way2Grow Coaching and posts blogs on way2growcoaching.com where you can also sign up for her monthly e-zine.