The Year I Got What I Wanted for My Birthday

Who knew not being nice meant I got what I wanted for my birthday and stopped frustrating my family at the same time? Go figure.

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I don’t know if it’s a “Nice-Person” trait or just me, but for birthdays (and other prospects of being the center of attention) I hide in the shadows mumbling, “Really, don’t make a fuss. I don’t need anything. Your presence is all the present I need.”  I have a drawer full of cards to prove that’s what I said I wanted.

If you are married or related to a “nice” person like that, I am so sorry. (See my earlier post to see that this is a permitted “sorry.”) I see how exasperating “nice” people can be to “not-nice” people (and by “not-nice” I mean direct and honest). We don’t make it easy for you to celebrate us or give us gifts.

I’ve always struggled to know what I want and even more, the courage to simply ask for it.  My thinking has been if you ask for what you want and don’t get it, you’re not only disappointed. You’re publicly disappointed.

This year, I gave my family and friends the gift of letting them know what I wanted for my birthday. (Note to newlywed women: Learn this early. Don’t rely on the mystery of “they’ll just know” love. They won’t. They wish they did and are clueless why you wouldn’t want the argyle scarf or weed eater. I have a friend who leaves a jewelry catalog on the kitchen counter with a page casually opened with arrows pointing to a specific necklace or earrings.)

So my daughter was surprised when I answered her “What do you want for your birthday?” with a specific answer. (I even had a coupon for her to help with the cost. Score. And had her brother contribute. Double score.) My husband was grateful when I told him the specific restaurant I wanted to go to. And as my friends asked if they could take me to lunch, instead of my usual hedging, I said an immediate “Yes!”

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This Year of Not Being Nice has had unexpected side benefits. I got a great Vera Bradley make-up bag, a dinner at Gianmarco’s and several hilarious lunches with awesome friends. I wish I started being not-nice decades ago. (Go to my reallylatebloomer site to see how I’m playing catch-up on courage.)

I’m also learning to be direct with God (he commands it if that helps motivate you). I love  Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 7:7-11 in The Message:

“Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?”

It’s been a great birthday! I’m beginning to believe “even better” that my loving Heavenly Father will give good things to me when I ask and will not disappoint me (even if what I asked for is delayed or denied).

In the Game of “No, You First . . . .”

Have you ever played that ping-pong game of

“No, you first”

                              “No, you take it”

                                                             “No, you choose”?

If you’re a “nice” person, you lose.  Everybody stops before you.

They shrug their shoulders, smile, and say, “OK.” And they take the last seat. Eat the last brownie. Decide which movie to watch. . . (Braveheart, again?)

Stop being surprised. You volunteered. They merely stopped the “Russian-roulette of niceness” game before you.

Rather than being slightly offended, figure out why you play that game.  Is it an intentional gesture of generosity or habitual social response? If you really don’t care about the movie or want to them to have the last brownie, then you won’t be irritated.  But if there is a whiff of needing to please or wanting to be perceived as magnanimous, that’s when you’ll be wishing they’d gone one more round of the “no, you” game.

Life is all about grace—God’s good gifts to you as well as through you. He may mean to give you a good gift which you give away.

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Like a hot-air balloon ride.

When I worked at an advertising agency, one of my accounts was a hot-air balloon manufacturer. One day they gave free rides with the thought that we’d better promote what we experienced. There were more people than spaces. Without thinking, I did the “no, you” game with a young design intern. She didn’t go even to the second round and I watched from the red dirt as she floated off into the sunset.

It’s been many years and I’ve never had another chance to ride in a hot-air balloon. What if that had been God’s customized gift to me and I “gamed” it to someone else without thinking?

So, in this “Year of Not Being Nice,” I’ve started pausing before playing the “no, you” game. As two of us intersect at one choice or object, I try to consider what I really want (something nice people have a hard time doing) as well as my hyper-awareness of the other person. A life of intentional kindness and generosity is beautiful. Sometimes, we need to realize that it is intended for ourselves as well as for others.

balloonsSo if someone offers me another hot-air balloon ride, I’ll just say thanks as I climb into the seat intended for me.

 

The Year of Not Saying “I’m Sorry”

 

If anyone remembers the old movie “Love Story” (let’s say it’s not on Netflix’ radar), the first thing that comes to mind is that eye-rolling line, Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.

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That statement only works with Wilson, the volleyball from Cast Away.

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For all other relationships, “I’m sorry” makes the top three phrases in the marriage/friendship/family tool box. (The other two being: “I love you” and “I’m worried you’re too thin.”)

We hurt each other (on purpose and by accident). We take advantage. We ignore. We sin. So we continue to acknowledge and apologize for our actions and attitudes.

The “I’m sorry” I’m talking about is the auto-response nice people like me are addicted to saying. This “sorry” pops out in situations where someone is inconvenienced, has that “look,” or when there’s an awkward pause. Perchance it has something to do with growing up Catholic.

This “I’m sorry” has a lot more to do with how I view myself than my actions.  It’s the “I AM so sorry” forgive-me-for-living response versus the “I am so sorry FOR. . .” specific apology.  It’s also the technique used for “I’m willing to take the blame if it means we can just move on and no one makes a fuss.”

I counted one day. I said “sorry” 11 times. For things like breathing too loudly, taking up too much space, and not immediately responding to a text.

For some of us, “sorry” is a way to stay out of the way and keep the peace. At a recent exercise class, a stack of heavy hard-plastic stair steppers toppled on two women. It stopped the class—if we’d been football players, we’d have taken a knee. The teacher ran out and got ice for both of them. I could tell they really hurt. One was holding her wrist. The other kept checking for blood on her scalp. But what did they both keep saying to our class?

“I’m so sorry.”

This has got to stop it. 

It is not your fault that you were hurt. In fact, most of us were relieved to get a much-needed break from ninja yoga.

King David hurt many people. But the psalms are not filled with stuttering “I’m so sorries.” In the midst of his mess-ups, he still knew who he was, a man after God’s own heart. At the right time, as he was convicted by God’s spirit, he deeply repented and specifically asked for forgiveness (first and foremost of God), made reparations, and didn’t dodge the consequences. David’s Psalm 32 and 51 show us true repentance, which includes a change of mind and action as well as an acknowledgment of sin and need for forgiveness. (A clue to know if you’re auto-sorrying or truly repenting is your desire to be forgiven.)

And if someone like David apologizes to you, don’t use your nice-person deflector skills. I often brush aside someone else’s “sorry” with “That’s okay. It was nothing.”  If they hurt you or put you in a difficult situation, it’s something. Acknowledge it and go on. “Yes, that was hard. Thank you for your apology,” works.

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So this year, I’m breaking my habit of saying “I’m sorry” like some wind-up “sorry doll.” I’m trying to delete the auto-sorry in my conversations, emails, and texts. I find myself stuttering “I’m sorr- …”and swallowing and pausing a lot.

The pause has been good for me. It has forced me to think. Is this a situation where I’ve intentionally hurt or ignored someone? Then I need to ask for forgiveness for the specific injury or action. Are there situations where I’m sad for someone? Then a simple “I’m sorry for your pain” or “I am so sorry this happened to you” or “That makes me sad” fits.

But I don’t have to be sorry for taking up space, winning, losing (as long as I was trying), stumbling, inconveniencing someone when its outside of my control, crying (or not crying), or voicing a different opinion. I don’t have to be sorry when someone has hurt or inconvenienced me, interrupts me, or if a stack of stair steppers falls on me.

And neither do you.

Being “not nice” means never having to say you’re sorry for all the things you don’t need to be sorry for.

 

 

 

 

What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up?

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

Growing up, our family moved every three to four years so books became my best friends. Nancy Drew mysteries, Hans Christian Andersen and George MacDonald fairy tales, novels featuring quirky heroines, and true-life adventures filled with courage and discovery. They shaped who I thought I’d become. As a Catholic, the Book of Martyrs and the Saint-of-the-Month club also made my reading list. Maybe that’s how “nice” trumped “kick-butt courageous.” But true saints and martyrs live and die for a cause greater than self-protection and people pleasing.

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The way I’ve scripted my life, I’d never want to read about me. I’d be my book-best-friends’ nightmare. Pippi Longstocking bowls over nice girls and Ramona Quimby pleads with her parents to not torture her with “Perfect Susan.” Scarlett and Rhett live on forever, while poor Melanie dies and mild-mannered Ashley. . .what did happen to him? Amy goes to France and marries rich Laurie, Jo finds love and writing success, and sweet Beth, well, she dies. There’s a pattern here.

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But there’s still time to edit the story of my life.

I’ve been searching in the wrong places. I’ve been reading other people’s PR hype of saints and martyrs, when I should’ve been going straight to Scripture to find role models. Like the “proverbial” Proverbs 31 woman.

I used to gag and run as people pushed me toward this impossible domestic stereotype that I had no ability or desire to be. I can’t sew, I don’t plan ahead, and don’t even ask about getting up before sunrise. But I’ve been reading it through my new “better-brave-than-bland” eyes and without someone’s else’s agenda and I see her differently. This is a woman who loves deeply, knows and serves out of her skills and passions, laughs at the future with faith, and values strength and dignity. She doesn’t say “yes” without thinking and doesn’t help everyone with everything. Her husband and children don’t think she’s a “tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges” as Anne Tyler described the nice wife and mother in The Ladder of Years. They see her, appreciate her, and praise her.

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The Proverbs 31 woman didn’t struggle with my “nod and be nice or they’ll get angry” syndrome.  I envision her as an honest, confident, passionate, and imperfect God-lover. Maybe with a little sprinkling of Anne Lamott (you probably haven’t heard the “Proverbs 31 woman” and “Anne Lamott” paired in the same sentence before). Anne’s warning resonates in my aging, awakening soul, “What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65… and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?”

I still have time to grow up to be the person I dreamed of being. But I better get started. Because it’s better to bloom late and loud than never and nice.

“Tell me,

what is it you plan to do

with your one

wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver

Why This is Not the Year to Call Me “Nice”

 

I ace all courses on conflict avoidance and other-people’s-anger management. I disappear at a whiff of relational difficulty. So, anytime I’ve stepped into the fight, I remember. Like the time, years ago, when I plucked up the courage to confront a close friend with a truth she didn’t want to hear.

It didn’t go well.

She shut me out. Then about a month later, I saw her at the store. She was light and breezy. When I laughed at some trivial thing she said, she patted my arm and said, “Bless your heart. There’s the Nancy I love.” With those words, she put me back in my place. And I went along. Because that’s what nice people do. I’ve been getting along and staying in my “place” for years with a pat and a “bless your heart.” (Southerners know the real meaning behind that “nice” phrase.)

But no more.

The Year of Not Being Nice can also be called The Year of Being Brave (or the Year of Reading Brene´ Brown) and the Year of That’s Enough.

I’m turning into Howard Beale, the anchorman from the old movie Network.

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Howard spews a tirade to his television audience, “I’m mad as %*# and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Then he urges the viewers to throw open their windows and shout it, too.  Which they do, in record numbers. (This was before the internet age or he’d be trending with tweets and hashtags. It’d be a new movement #theyearofnotbeingnice.).

So here’s a gentle warning.

This is not the year to pat me on my arm and call me nice.

If you’re backing away from the growling lapdog, whispering, “Hold on—I just said you were nice”—think about why you’re calling someone “nice.”  If it’s because they’ll never call you out or call you to more for fear of upsetting you, that’s actually not nice. It’s not doing you (or them) any favors. But if you’re sincerely complimenting someone, I’ll help you find a more specific, less “nothing-much” (see my last post) word:

Kind.

Courageous.

Gracious.

You could also try: Thin. Beautiful. Brilliant. Those always work when you’re at a loss for words.

This is the year I’m trying to better love my family and friends by speaking truth when needed with clarity, directness, and love. (And even if I have to write it out before speaking, baby steps are better than backing away.)  This is also the year I’m not running or cringing when I need to hear the same truths spoken to me. I’m embracing Paul’s command in I Corinthians 16: Stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong and do everything in love.

My prayer is that at end of this year, there will be a whole lot of people shouting “I’m not nice and I’m not going to take it anymore.” And they will find the courage to break the noose of niceness they’ve submitted themselves to and stand firm in their God-given places.

That would make me very happy.

 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

 

Getting to the Root of Niceness

 

. . . or Why You Wouldn’t Have Wanted to Be a “Nice Girl” in Chaucer’s Time

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You learn a lot by studying the history of a word. The Latin root of “nice” is nescius (picture Toula’s father Gus in My Big Fat Greek Wedding explaining this…) from ne meaning not and scire meaning to know. To be nice was akin to being ignorant or clueless.

Nice landed in France where, in the 12th century, it meant “weak, needy, stupid, silly.” It then hopped the English Channel where Chaucer liked his girls “nice” (wanton, lewd, lustful, and extravagant) and Shakespeare used nice to describe fools.

How did “nice” become so “nice?”

Nice bounced through the centuries going from “timid” (before 1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 1300s); to “dainty, delicate” (1400s); to “precise, careful” (1500s); to “agreeable, delightful” (1700s); to “kind, thoughtful” (1800s).  Jane Austen considered nice a vague, agreeable word. As she wrote in Northanger Abbey, “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.” (www.etymonline.com)

Now in the 21st century, many English professors ban the use of the word “nice” because it means everything and nothing in a fuzzy, diluted way. Even in medical terminology, NICE is an acronym for noninvasive conservative treatment or a nice way of saying “not much.” For many of us, our acronym of N.I.C.E. would be “Nodding, Invisible, Compliant, Exhausted.”

But surely, there’s a nice definition of “nice” in the Bible?

Nope.  As I mentioned in my first post, you can’t find “nice” in the Bible because it’s not there. The closest word may be “meek.” Whereas “nice” has come to mean pleasant with a side of people pleasing, the biblical meaning of meekness isn’t what we now think of as weakness but is strength under control. Jesus, who describes himself as meek and promises that the meek will inherit the earth, didn’t come to please people but to please his Father.

“Meekness is an active and deliberate acceptance of undesirable circumstances that are wisely seen by the individual as only part of a larger picture. Meekness is not a resignation to fate, a passive and reluctant submission to events. . . (the meek are) the strong who have been placed in a position of weakness where they persevere without giving up.” (www.biblestudytools.com)

Nice Indoctrination

That nothing/everything word, nice, begins early and finds its way into many a baby’s nursery.

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To heck with nice . . . .

This is what Bethany Hamilton, the young surfer who survived a shark attack, thinks of “nice:”

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So now that I’m a “big girl,” this is my rhyme:

Courage and kindness,

No longer spineless.

That’s what rock-the-boat girls (and boys) are made of.

So what are you made of? What do you want to be when you grow up? More on that in my next post.

 

 

 

Nice People Anonymous

 

Niceness Recovery Step 1
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Admit you have a problem.

As a recovering “nice” person, the first step I took was to confess it to my husband.

My name is Nancy.  And I’m a nice-aholic.

I told him my 2016 theme was “The Year of Not Being Nice.” I thought he’d turn pale and quake.

He didn’t.

He raised his eyebrows, smiled and said, “That shouldn’t be too hard.”

I called my son, ever the subtle diplomat, who said, “That’s nice, Mom.”

Then I told my daughter, a recent college graduate living the 20-something semi-nightmare of moving back home. “So, I’m thinking about learning not to be nice.” She rolled her eyes, checked her phone, and said, “Whatever.”

That’s my girl. She stands up for herself, doesn’t take anything from anyone, and even . . . oh my. . . . gets angry. She will never need to go through Nice People Anonymous because niceness usually skips a generation.

As soon as I stuttered through my confessions with my family, I began hearing “those” voices again.

What does he mean by those raised eyebrows?

                   Why did she roll her eyes?

                                      What if they get angry at me?

                                                          Maybe, I need to rethink this.

                                                                                   . . . Being nice isn’t so bad.

 

Niceness Recovery Step 2

Businessman running down desert road, looking back

Don’t “look” back and don’t back down.

Sometimes all it takes is a look to make a nice person back down. Nice people can preemptively interpret any flicker of negative facial expression and negotiate to maintain the peace. It’s like we’re wearing mood rings monitoring everyone else’s emotions except our own. 

So, do not look for the “look.”

                 Say your say and leave the room.

                                   Don’t second-guess your words and their responses.

                                                              Don’t return and apologize.

Think about Lot’s nameless wife. Maybe she was trying to be “nice” to all those poor Sodom-dwellers and wondering if they needed anything. She now is a salt-lick for camels in some middle Eastern desert.

 

Niceness Recovery Step 3

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Prepare for resistance. (Your own, too)

Don’t be surprised by the arguments going on in your head. After all, you’ve been raised to be nice. And what’s so wrong with that, you ask?

It’s all in motivation.

In being nice, are you by faith giving the gift of yourself or are you by fear trying to please and stay under the “wrath” radar? Do you believe that “niceness” is the only acceptable answer, even when you’ve been abused or ignored? Or do you resent people who don’t recognize your niceties? If niceness leads to bitterness, that’s all the warning you need try a year without it.

Second, do not be surprised by your family and friends’ resistance. Who doesn’t love having “nice” people in their lives? People who can be counted on, who take the hit for the team, and don’t take the last piece of chocolate cake. So, as they begin giving you the subtle signs of displeasure, smile and nod (nice people are good at that) and think again about that tombstone.  And swat the unseen gnats (scroll above to see first post) buzzing around your brain.

P.S.  Of course I made sure my family approved their statements. My daughter was not pleased with the eye-rolling depiction. I almost edited it out. But I didn’t. She smiled and said, “Way to go, Mom.”

 

The Year of Not Being Nice or What I Gave Up for Lent

My new year’s resolution is to stop being so “nice.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to start being nasty.

It just means I don’t want to end up with this on my tombstone:

tombstone

Of course, I couldn’t get to this resolution until February because there were just so many demands and needs. (Other nice people know the struggle.)  So I decided I’d give up being nice for Lent. And beyond.

Based on my subconscious mantras, being nice seems to have been my goal for a long time.

Don’t rock the boat.

Don’t make anyone angry.

Smile, nod and get along.

Say “I’m sorry” as my auto-response.

There’s probably deep reasons why I’ve made it my life mission to be nice; psychological terms like people-pleasing, co-dependency, low self-esteem, and “chicken-hearted cringer.”

Maybe I thought being nice was the “Christian” thing to do and would get me Brownie points or martyr merit badges. But being “Christian” means there are no “merit” badges ever again.

Do a word search for “nice” in the Bible.  It’s not there.

The Bible is filled with words like good, kind, compassionate, courageous, gracious, sacrificial, loving, faithful, forgiving. But not “nice.” Not even in the ASV (American Southern Version).

Maybe you’re wondering “What the heck is so wrong with being nice?” and that the only other tombstone option for me after this year will be “Here lies Nancy. She was a . . . (it rhymes with witch).” I’ve asked the same question. Until this past year, when I began seeing some non-nice people happily moving on after they left me carrying their baggage and thanking them for the chance.

No More Ms. Nice-Nancy.

Although it’s been 20 years since I read it, I clearly remember a scene from Anne Tyler’s novel, Ladder of Years, where Delia Grinstead, the “nice” middle-aged wife and mother with a nearly empty nest walks away from her family while on a beach vacation. What struck me was that neither her husband nor any of her three children could describe her to the police searching for her, even to the color of her eyes. She had become invisible or as she described herself, “a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges.”

Because I don’t want to end up the family gnat, 2016 will be the year to start rocking the boat.

So this is a blog for all you frustrated nice boys and girls to join me in breaking free from bland niceness to a braver, scarier life where you don’t defer your own dreams and may even make people angry in the process. But at least they’ll remember the color of your eyes.

Take this year to figure out who you want to be when you grow up (you still have time no matter your age) and what you want on your tombstone.

P.S. Talking about tombstones. If Jesus had one—which thank God he doesn’t—it wouldn’t say “he was . . . nice.” It would read:

JESUS

He’s not here.