“Nice is nice,” was Sue’s signature phrase. As a teenager I would groan a little and roll my eyes. I did not want to be nice, nor did I feel particularly nice. But because I respected her, I would smile and through my gritted teeth I would try to speak nicely.
Last month Pascal and I started teaching a new semester of our class on Homelessness at Ryerson University. I am nervous at the beginning of each new semester and with every new group, but this semester my anxiety was particularly high. I was nervous, scared and standing all alone in front of a room full of strangers.
In these moments of stress I have to admit that I’m tempted to be rather cranky. I don’t want anyone to know how scared I feel. I don’t want anyone to know that I feel like an imposter. I want to hide these paralyzing feelings behind a few sarcastic comments and a snarky tone. It is so tempting.
But, nice is nice.
It has taken me awhile to realize that Sue’s words weren’t a silly gimmick to convince crabby teenagers like myself to play nicely. Our words have the power cut us down or build us up in a single moment. Neurological research is demonstrating that words, such as those slung in situations of emotional abuse or with the intention to hurt, impact how our brains develop and have lasting ramifications into adulthood. Hurtful words trigger the same pain response in the brain as physical hurt - we do feel the sting of words as “real” pain. How we speak to one another has a far greater impact on our brains and well-being than simply hurt feelings.
In the classroom 45 blank and bored faces were staring back at me, waiting for information or knowledge or something mildly entertaining. Sue’s voice nudged me: nice is nice.
I took a deep breath, introduced myself and promptly said “I’m scared.” I shared with them how afraid I was to be the teacher, to be in front of a group of strangers, wanting them to like me. I was honest and (gasp!) vulnerable. I even told them that I was sharing all of this because a wise womyn told me that “nice is nice”. I was terrified and I was nice.
And remarkably so were they. Sure there were a few eye rolls and perhaps a slight groan, but 45 blank, bored faced magically turned into 45 smiling faces. All it took was some nice.
It’s taken me years but I think I finally get it. Sue knows how powerful our words are and she consciously uses her words to peace for peace. She builds peacefulness within herself and her community. And she has patiently waited for me to figure this out for myself.
Nice is nice.
Yes, it is.
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