Niceness gets a bad rap these days. In politics, being too nice to one’s opponents is seen as a sign of unseriousness, even betrayal of one’s comrades and principles. In Church affairs, the “Church of Nice” gets dragged for being unwilling to stand up for truth and to condemn sin, lest feelings get bruised.
And the truth is, these criticisms are onto something: When “getting along” gets elevated above other more important values, like truth itself, then it does become disordered. Remember those jarring but prophetic words of Christ:
So, yes, it is possible to be too committed to niceness, just like it’s possible to eat too many vegetables to the exclusion of other food, or to read too many books to the exclusion of spending quality time with family. These are all good things—in the right proportions. All the brightest thinkers from the ancient world through the Middle Ages agree: virtue is found in the mean between excess and defect, and we can have an excess of niceness.
But what about the defect of niceness? This, I fear, is more the problem today, as we careen toward a divisive election between divisive candidates with divisive political visions during a divisive pandemic. In this time, it’s important that we remember the other side of the niceness equation: Affability—that quality that allows us to get along with one another even when it’s not easy—really is a virtue.
Don’t take my word for it: No less an authority than St. Thomas Aquinas lists affability among the virtues in his Summa Theologica. Since affability is a virtue, rather than an inborn and unchanging personality trait, that means it’s something we can nurture and improve in ourselves. And we do this, like with any virtue, through habits.
I’m friends with Catholics with widely varying views about many of the divisive narratives of our day. Some mask and practice social distancing consistently, while some think the pandemic is bunk. Some think it’s essential that the president be re-elected, and some think he’s abhorrent (and some think both of these things at the same time). Sometimes there are tense conversations. But we realize that, at the end of the day and with a bit of emotional distance, what we share—faith in Jesus Christ and His Church—is more important.
But even more than habits of respectful conversation, I have found, are habits of prayer, service, and presence. It’s harder to fall out with someone over politics when they’ve brought you a casserole when you were sick, or prayed for you when you lost your job, or cried with you when a loved one died. These are the habits that make real friendships and real communities—and that make fruitful, rather than forceful, conversations about hard issues possible.
Affability, after all, is about the wisdom of knowing the difference between the conflicts that should be resolved (or simply left alone) in good humor, and those that really are worth putting everything on the line. And it’s much easier to discern where those distinctions are when we really know someone, care for and about them, and, dare I say, love them.
One last thing about affability: St. Thomas says it’s part of justice. That means it’s not something that we can choose to foster or to ignore depending on what we think about someone: It’s a duty that we owe to every person to try to get along with them unless, as he put it, “it be necessary to displease them for some good purpose.”
These days give us lots of excuses to displease our neighbor, and sometimes it truly is necessary. But let us be signs of contradiction amid so much pettiness by standing for truth, yes, but by doing so with joy and compassion and charity. Let us recognize, by growing in the virtue of affability, the difference between disagreement and danger, and let us remember the value of friendship that goes beyond partisanship. And, finally, let us commit to the habits of service that form us in a true love of our neighbor as ourselves, body and soul, Democrat or Republican.