There is a disturbing, albeit limited, truth in the maxim that nice guys finish last. Regardless of whether one cares about the order in which they complete the journey of life, this is a discouraging realization. In an existence that too many view as a zero-sum war, the spoils rarely go the kind, gentle souls.
This phenomenon is not limited by gender or sexual orientation, but its tendency to disproportionately affect cisgender males is symptomatic of larger issues with that long- and perhaps formerly-dominant segment of the population. Toxic masculinity is a current buzzword, but its polluting effects have dominated human history since its inception.
Perhaps mankind’s most noxious emission is the idea that one’s success must come at the expense of another’s failure, that in order to survive we must destroy our competition. Long before Social Darwinism was a movement, but far after we had to outrun sabertooths for our meals, it was accepted dogma that ruthlessness was the path to success. To the extent that one was nice to others, this was a subterfuge for longer-term gain, a set-up to betrayal.
Counterpoints to this ethos have also long existed, extolling the deferred rewards that may eventually await the virtuous. Commensurately, in the trajectory from religious teachings to inspirational posters to memes, it has been posited that being nice costs nothing. This is a reductionist viewpoint in that it only considers monetary gain. It fails to account for the intense levels of emotional and psychological energy necessary to remain calm in the face of threats, to reward rudeness with politeness, to turn the other cheek when one is wronged.
Targeted by a classroom bully, I asked my despondent daughter how she handled this adversity. She told me, in her typically matter-of-fact mien, that she resolved to be as nice to the bully as the bully was mean to her. This effort left Violet exhausted, but not defeated. It is a lesson that I hoped that she would never have to learn, but I was so incredibly proud that she intuitively understood that meeting violence with violence is not the answer. And yet, I am profoundly sad that she will be pushing against this dynamic for the rest of her life.
The temptations to push the ledger in one’s favor, to take the low road, are legion. A smart cookie already, Violet’s potential is unlimited. Will she or her compatriots determine that the proverbial oxygen deprivation of the high road is not worth it? We strive to create good examples at home, but we are only so influential. The public discourse is littered with poor exemplars; many of the famous or infamous made their marks through cunning and not kindness.
In the end, it is a question of motivation, of whether one pursues material gain or spiritual peace. Being nice is its own reward, one that cannot buy an ice cream cone, but is of an altogether priceless currency. The meek have yet to inherit the Earth, but, as with most prophecies, patience is advised.