Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 20, 2010

Engel’s Theory of Finite Niceness

Today’s Financial Times has a piece by Matthew Engel, “Towards a Theory of Finite Niceness”. He starts quoting a study from Pyschological Science entitled “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?” and noting the answer of two Canadian psychologists, “No!” Seems the Greens who buy ethical products “were more likely to lie, cheat and steal than those who did not, and less likely to take the chance to be kind. They described this paradox as ‘moral balancing’ or ‘compensatory ethics’.”

Okay. Now I guess it’s easy to see this in other people, right? So of course we agree. Then here we are as Orthodox Christians, and the implications compound: Do we balance being “good about God” with cutting corners on our being good to our neighbor? Do we handily define our neighbor to include the disadvantaged, but conveniently NOT our families…. or vice versa? And what of Metropolitan Anthony’s notion that “…those who yearn to clamber their way into heaven initiate suffering amongst all those in their midst” who seem to suffer the insufferability of their unperfected zeal for the Kingdom – as if it were somewhere else other than here and now? Kind of a thing that makes you want to say, “Hmmmmm.”

Again, easier to see in the other guy. The other day driving in to work, a fellow in a black Mercedes cut me off  – twice, and once safely in front of me the second time, gave me a sign he held up for some time. He had a big, bulky rosary hanging from his mirror which helped me to understand that all he really wanted me to do was help me remember that there is only one God (hence one finger), and (pointing upwards)… that God is rightly in his heaven watching what we do. More specifically, I’m pretty sure he wanted to remind me that God is watching what I’m doing and I’m not doing it very well by his lights.. specifically my driving. And I always thought my driving was peerless! Of course, on reflection, he was right. So I have repented of my sinful Mr. Toad of Toadhall-like driving ways, but others might be forgiven for thinking I missed the point and he had simply meant something else. But either with him or with me, you have the paradox of finite goodness in the flesh.

Engel writes: “We use the word ‘nice’ to describe people we come across who seem charming and kindly. It is not a word we use often to describe those to whom we are closest, because we know they are complex beings with faults and virtues. And these invariably come out in different ways.” In short, we see both sides, and we withhold the accolade. Wow… we’re tough, huh? And so we invariably apply it to all sorts of others for whom our experience is more limited.

He gives examples. There’s the bon homme in the office cheating on his fourth wife, and the fellow slacker who slinks home to take care of his ailing wife… in the tenth year of a chronic illness. I’d add that we surely see this in ourselves and in our fellows amongst the Orthoblogosphere: Writers who make nice, but have “issues”, as well as folks who couldn’t make nice if they were paid zillions for it, but are probably far better Christians. Then of course there’s the posers who figure this out, and pose as evilly possessed in order that others wise to this, will know they’re really good, huh? Nah… maybe that one’s over the top, and as Huey Lewis said, “…sometimes bad is bad”.

Truth is that for those of us Americans groomed on the images of the Beach Boys, good looks, California cool and niceness… this is our cross, huh? Yeah… we don’t even know it. Niceness. “Gee… bearing the cross of niceness… at least it probably looks good with my Izod sweater, huh?” Yeah, it has a lameness to it when you first think of it, but maybe not. It’s a start, and maybe the truth is that you don’t just get one cross… you carry it for awhile… then give it to someone else so you can pick up something a little more fitting. Like any athlete getting in shape: start with the weanie weights and move on to the mega-lifts. But  FWIW, as we watch our generation age… the generation that condemned its conformist parents for their middleclass ways and staying within the boundaries… where now that quaint conformity seems to at least have served as a break on the sort rapacious greed, gluttony, and self-puffery they largely avoided but has come to symbolize the excess of the past twenty years or so once the BabyBoomers got their hands on running things…and transformed a nation of middle class folks into a land of truly wealthy on one side and dire poverty on the other. The middle recedes like my hairline. And … I don’t know what to say. I’ve my own rapacious greed, gluttony and self-puffery to look at as well. Smaller scale perhaps than some… but I’ve not heard that christians – or anyone for that matter – gets graded on a curve.

Engel chooses to go along with a line “coined either by Robert Louis Stevenson or my grandmother: ‘There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behoves all of us not to talk about the rest of us.'” But of course this may simply be our moderate inclination to go with the niceness after all, because the cross really is too much to bear.  And I dunno… maybe instead it is our role to see the best in us, and help ourselves and each other grow the “best” so that it outgrows the “worst”.

And  yet the answer of the cross remains. The balance of love and life – which may be a better way of saying faith and works in this day and age – is simply what we should seek, and in turn avail ourselves of the mysteries of confession and communion to strengthen us along the way… and learn to find these as well in each and every moment of our lives… not just in the Church, but with and in each other. We may not merit more than “nice” in our turn, but perhaps we can at least be honest with God and ourselves – and especially each other – where we are not. May God grant us the aspiration for the grace of wisdom, and the repentance and vision to be healed. And that in the infinite love of God, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we might find and overcome our contentment with finite goodness.


  1. Interesting study. It seems there is a slice of the privileged class that can afford to “go green” who are jerks. I wonder if “rich”, “green” and “jerk” are somehow correlated to some other underlying factor that makes other people who are a “thin slice” of any demographic jerks. (Ie., the hyper-anythings for any cause). “Truly nice” as an art and not a manipulation is a lost spiritual discipline I think, but nice requires that we lose some narcissism, which is why most of us don’t get its value… we only look at it in terms of what it costs us on the altar of someone else’s “wrongness”.

  2. This is very interesting… but honestly, I didn’t like it. Not one bit. I recognized myself far too much.

  3. Yeah… but it helps the ol’ confession thing. Penitential season and all that… it is worth considering that the limit of Finite “Niceness” is exceeded only through “much prayer and fasting”… and then only through Grace.

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