Having written a novel with a theme of lies at it’s core, I keep coming back to the question of how much of what we believe might really be a lie. People who have read my book like to bring me comments about the lies they have uncovered in their lives.
Lies are hard to detect when they are about our basic belief system concerning the nature of the world. I grew up during the civil rights movement. When I asked questions about the movement, my parents tried to explain, but found it challenging to teach a child why some people believed a lie. While my parents were busy teaching me that some people believe lies, they were also busy teaching me a lie.
The lie I grew up with was if you are nice to others, they will be nice to you. This is a major tenet of the whole set of nice girl rules. Of course, one problem is the reverse of the rule: If people are cruel to you, it is because you are not nice. It is the reverse rule that is devastating, induces the most guilt and allows us to blame victims.
When I first contemplated writing about lies, I thought that writing about the nice girl rules and calling them lies would sound cynical. Yesterday a friend, Mary, called to tell me about an incident with another friend of ours being bullied at work. I commented, “It is so frustrating to see something like this happen to Helen. She is such a nice person.” I still believed the lie despite ample evidence over the years that being nice to others does not guarantee us immunity from cruelty.
Mary told me about reading Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person At Work. She explained that Aron described the victim of bullying as being a nice person. Ah, nice people get bullied? It actually makes sense. Nice people are seen as less likely to strike back or defend themselves. Bluntly put, if you are nice to others, some people will see you as weak and attempt to bully you. I can deal with that.
Now, we get to the truth and can rewrite the rules. Being a nice person and treating others with respect and kindness is a worthy value in and of itself. However, if you choose to adopt this value, others may view you as weak or unwilling to defend yourself. Occasionally the nice person will encounter people who are willing to be cruel because they believe they won’t be called on their behavior.
Looking at the truth sets us free to be more deliberate in our own behavior. Yes, I choose to treat others as I want to be treated. Some will not reciprocate. When someone else chooses to be cruel, it does not mean I am not a nice person or that I am responsible for creating their behavior. Their cruelty means that they have a problem that has nothing to do with me. I can still be a nice person and walk away or defend myself as I choose.