Monday, April 11, 2011

Growing Nice

This annoying little quote has been hanging in my virtual file for awhile now, but I'm still in the mood to refute it.  It's from a salon review of a TV series I've never seen.  Here's the assertion:  "The older you get, the less cool you are. The less cool you are, the nicer you are. This is why old people are so nice to each other."

I won't argue with the observation that older people are nice to each other.  I don't necessarily buy it, but actually I'd like to.  But if it is true--let's say when it is true--it has absolutely nothing to do with coolness, whatever that may mean these days. (Especially in this context--it is cool now to be mean to each other?)

But it does make sense to me that the older you get, the nicer you are to each other.  There may be something in what the rest of the review says--that it stems from the sense of regret or recognition of failures relative to hopes and expectations, goals and attempts, even the expectations you have of others.  Life does humiliate you eventually, and if you deal with that successfully, it simply humbles you.  And this may increase your empathy, and give you a focus for what you're empathetic about--the same boat you're in, basically.  Then it's more than recognition--it's support for staying brave through the process.  And it's also the corollary: you rejoice in the good fortune of others, after all they've (we've) been through.  Somebody ought to be having some good fortune.  Good for them.

But I think there's something else, having to do with memory.  I've noticed this in myself, and I've especially been struck by it in other people even older than me:  You increasingly remember when people have been especially nice to you.  Of course you get blindsided by specific regrets--how could I have been so dumb, such a jerk, etc.--and by moments of trauma, though I find that while outcomes can still inspire anger to rise in me, the sting of specific wrongs has lessened.  It all gets a bit fuzzy.  But I do recall when people have been particularly helpful, encouraging, inspiring; nice to me.  Even from long ago.  Especially from long ago.

I've noticed this also with my uncle--my mother's younger brother, and the last surviving blood relative on that side of the family older than me.  I've see him on my trips back to western PA, and on the last two I made a point of talking to him more than the usual social moment amidst a family occasion.  It struck me on both of these trips in the past two years, he's made a point of mentioning how he's been thinking a lot about my mother, and how kind she had been to him.  She was about 12 years older.  He remembers that when she worked in a factory during World War II, she bought him a football so he and his friends could play using a real one, instead of whatever substitute they had.  Or that she made him lunch every day when he worked in a drug store near her first apartment after she was married.

Something like that was also prominent in the memory of my Aunt Toni, the middle child between my mother and uncle.  I guess it was about 15 years ago now when I talked with her about her father, my grandfather.  Her strongest impression of him was how kind he was.  His acts of kindness were what she remembered.

Maybe kindness is not the same as being nice.  But being nice can be seen as an act of kindness.  It may take less effort, but it's in the ball park. 

As we get older, we remember acts of kindness.  They are like small beacons come upon suddenly in a murky street, a dark wood.  And so, perhaps realizing how important these acts of kindness were, we understand how important they are.  We're nice to each other because we know what it means, not only in how people live their lives every day, but in what they will remember.