Hey, my teenage sons — and friendly others — you might remember that I’ve been offering advice to you — my boys, not the others — instead of talking about what you’re up to as I did for so many years. Honestly, I thought it would be easy to give advice and drop wisdom bombs. You know what? It ain’t.
Before I get started, though, let me tell you a quick story.
Since right around the time you boys were born, 15 or so years ago, this same guy in the deli at our local grocery store has been slicing our ham and salami and bagging up fried chicken for us. His name is Neil, and he recently retired. I saw him the other day at a convenience store where we were both getting coffee. When he recognized me, he smiled and shook my hand warmly and said, “Hey, it’s Super Nice Guy!”
I was a little take aback, but who doesn’t like a nickname — truth be told, I always thought of him as Neil the Chicken Guy. I smiled and told him I always appreciated what he did for us and mentioned that he always gave me a couple of more pieces of chicken than I ordered. He said he was glad to do it. Neil also said he thought I was the kindest customer he had and that he enjoyed talking baseball with me and watching the boys grow up. I made an impact on this guy just by being nice to him, which is sadly rare way to treat a retail employee.
Just by being nice.
So, I guess that’s my advice for you this time is: Be nice. Good advice, right? Well, yes, I guess so. But, what does that even mean?
As parents, we say “be nice” all the time. I looked the word “nice” up: pleasant: agreeable; satisfactory. Sort of a generic entry there, don’tcha think?
Be good. Be kind. Be safe. Be nice.
I’ve been saying these things to you since before you could talk. So much so, in fact, that it begins to mean nothing. I wonder if they even mean anything to you anymore. We never define exactly what entails “being nice” or any of the other words we so casually offer as you go out the door. Perhaps, they’re only platitudes given up as much for ourselves as for you, as though I’m covering my own ass by telling you these things. You know, “I told him to be nice, officer. It’s out of my hands now.”
I notice, however, that there is a consistency here in all those trite directives I’ve been offering, but not where you’d expect it. It’s that first word, “be.”
Man, that’s a complicated word. But, it is a verb and that helps. I understand verbs.
The word “love,” for instance, is both a verb and a noun. I’ve never been able to pin it down as a noun. It’s one of those that is different to every person and in every case. But, as a verb, it is more definite, more actionable.
Maybe that’s what we mean when we say “be nice” or any of the others. The focus is not necessarily on the amorphous noun but on that little word in front. I am asking you to become nice, occupy nice, live in nice. And, you know what, I see you do it.
I’ve watched you be nice so many times over the years. A hand offered to help a player up on the soccer pitch. An encouraging word given to a scared friend or frustrated brother. An unsolicited hug for me or your mother. I’ve witnessed you being respectful to your teachers. I’ve seen you being kind to your grandparents. I’ve seen you be patient with younger kids, watched you be safe on a playground.
The only way we can see these nouns like love and honor and respect and integrity is when they are acted out in front of us. Listen, boys: it’s easy to see the meanness and baseness and discourtesy of this world we live in. Just turn on your phone or your television. It seems nearly every show or movie depends on some unsavory elements to move forward — some are just devoted to being mean or showing cruelty and disrespect. And the news so often just shows us the bad.
But, and I truly believe this, it is just as easy, if not easier, to see kindness and decency and niceties and so much more.
Integrity flies by in the cab of the firetruck as it screams by our house from the station around the corner. Courage is made real in the intent and decency of medical professionals. Honor is there in the hearts of our teachers. Cashiers and servers, cops and clergy, roofers and landscapers, “chicken guys,” will all respond in kind when offered kindness. I’ve seen it over and over in my life. You will, too, you’ve just got to look for it.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to revise my advice today. “Be nice” is too vague to be helpful. I’d say just “be” might be enough.
Be nice, be kind, be helpful and courageous and wild and playful and hopeful, just and right. Be love, be integrity, be honor and decency and respect.
Let them occupy you. Let them be in you, and I believe they are. I believe they are in all of us. Be the things you want in others, be toward them as you’d have them be to you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Peebles left a 30-year career in the restaurant business to become a stay-at-home dad to twin boys. He writes a blog, I Hope I Win a Toaster, that makes little sense. He coaches sometimes, volunteers at the schools, plays guitar, and is a damn good homemaker. He believes in hope, dreams, and love … but not computers.