Niceness is my favorite sin

Several years ago, I sat in a Sunday School class where the following question was posed:   

“What is your favorite sin?” 

The question was an adaptation of Lamoni’s father’s simple invocation in Alma 22: ”O God… if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee.” Using the definition of sin used in this verse, the teacher invited us to consider what is it that we (individually and collectively) might currently do or believe that most inhibits our ability to know and become more like God—the sin we cling to at the greatest cost.   

The “What is my favorite sin?” question has stuck with me. It’s catchy, and perhaps because it’s derived from those verses in particular (which resonate with me for several reasons), that question has resurfaced in my brain and served as a springboard for self-reflection many times since I first sat in that Sunday School class. But it wasn’t until last November that I identified and named the sin that I think is most deserving of the “favorite” descriptor. Of all the ugly motives and tendencies within me, I’ve come to believe that perhaps nothing is quite as damning as all the niceness I find there: my deeply rooted tendencies to privilege “being nice” at any cost. 

For the record, niceness (at least how I’m using it here) is not synonymous with kindness. Kindness is a fact that is always, always worth seeing and acting upon. Niceness, on the other hand, comes down to privileging selfish comfort over moral courage or genuine love for others. Niceness is choosing to disengage because honest self-critique isn’t pleasant or painless. It’s allowing the fear of uncertainty or vulnerability or being disagreed with to prevent us from acting with integrity. Niceness is choosing to remain in comfortable ignorance around hard questions that don’t directly impact our safety and well-being, even when others’ lives are at stake. It’s buying into the self-gratifying idea that not being guilty of the vilest of sins somehow means that there aren’t any real changes that need to be made in our hearts and conduct. And every one of these things is something I’ve been guilty of.  

I didn’t start to realize that I have a niceness problem until an experience I had last November as I watched in flabbergasted horror as my country voted Donald Trump into the White House. I was one of the many Americans who got a painful, badly needed wake-up call that night—one of those people who had to come to terms with the fact that I was dead wrong about what I thought my fellow Americans (and Mormons) most valued, and that there was so much more I needed to hear and learn and try to understand and do.  

I was watching the news that night by myself at someone else’s house while an unrelated party was going on in the room next to me (long story). And as I sat there watching the elections results come in, someone was suddenly standing between me and the TV, saying, “Obama encouraged black people to have persecution complexes, you know,” this person said. “He convinced black people that they’re being discriminated against so that people would support him.”  

I still have no idea what motivated this person to start a conversation with that, but what troubles me most about this moment is what I said: which is nothing. I don’t remember what my go-to justification was in this moment, but like many times before and even many times since, I just nicely sat there and stayed nicely quiet as the kind of thinking I had naively believed that only a handful of people really espoused, the kind that seems to have played a defining role in the outcome of the election I was watching develop in real time—was in full display right in front of me.

I share all of this because I don’t think I’m the only one with this favorite sin. Mormons are a notoriously nice group of people; and while I think that ‘nice” in this context generally means “friendly” (which, great!), we’re also known for silencing tough questions, for placing an obsessive overemphasis on appearances, and for refusing to apologize for mistakes, all of which fit the other definition of nice to a T.  Our history is rife with racism; and while we seem to be increasingly conscious of and willing to condemn the ways it still exists among us, we still have so much to see and so much work to do–work that won’t be adequately undertaken if we prioritize niceness over integrity.

When approached with honesty and humility, the process of naming and confronting our favorite sins is an intensely uncomfortable one. But choosing to reject niceness in favor of kindness is worth the effort, I think, if doing so makes greater space for the depth of compassion, wisdom, and strength that Lamoni’s father sought to know.


Aly grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Washington with her husband and two daughters.

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8 Responses

  1. Kris says:

    I think your niceness was wise. Because you believe your way and the other person believes his/her way. You avoided contention. Neither of you was going to change.

    • lo says:

      But how do you know they won’t change without asking?

      When I engage in conversation with people who disagree with me, I don’t expect to change their minds. But I do tell myself that maybe I can be one of several people in their lives who will share this perspective with them. And maybe that accumulation of comments or conversations will end up making a difference. And even if it doesn’t, sometimes it just feels like a moral imperative to open my mouth.
      It’s a thought process that was prevalent among missionaries in my mission– that opening your mouth doesn’t always (or often) make a difference to a person now (it might even just annoy or inconvenience them), but MAYBE down the road it will come to matter.

      (I do believe in avoiding contention, and I think there are ways to disagree without contention!)

      • aly says:

        Kris, I think there’s a lot of factors we have to quickly consider when deciding whether or not to engage with an opinion or perspective that differs from ours. If someone tells me that olives taste good, I might openly disagree with them (because gross) but not in a serious way; their opinion isn’t causing real harm to anybody.

        On the other hand (and as I mentioned in the article), the false, pervasive underlying belief in the statement that was made to me about discrimination in our country is one that continues to have terrible consequences for so many people. When that’s the case, I think there’s a moral imperative to engage. What that might look like depends on the person and the situation–I might start with asking a curious, non-threatening question, like, “Why do you think that?”; or with others who I know feel safe with me, I might immediately be more forthright and blunt.

        Learning how to effectively disagree is a messy and uncomfortable process for traditionally nice people, but when others’ safety and well-being is at risk, I don’t think that “they’re not going to change their minds anyway” is a valid justification for not saying anything. I think that what was intended by the “contention is of the devil” phrase it too often twisted to support niceness.

      • Lily says:

        Do you listen to others with the same thoughts directed towards yourself? Maybe I can learn something from them? You underlying assumptions is that you are correct and that they need to change.

      • aly says:

        Lily, you’re right that being willing to listen to and learn from other perspectives fits right in with this topic. This actually started out as a post about how I’ve had to learn how to better listen and admit when I’m wrong–how to deal with criticism and being disagreed with more productively. I’m not awesome at it, just like I’m not awesome at privileging kindness over niceness, but I’m working at both.

        You’re also right that in that instance I think I have a better/more informed perspective and that this person is wrong and needs to change. If someone believes something I think is wrong that doesn’t hurt anybody else then I’m not generally going to worry about changing their minds. If someone believes something that I think is wrong, that isn’t based in fact, and that is causing real harm to others, then yeah, I want them to change. I’m sure that under the same set of criteria you would want others to change, too.

  2. Patricia I Johnson says:

    Gluttony. But your choice is much more insightful! (Great article!)

  3. Gemma says:

    Anybody else watching “The Good Place” on Netflix? Without spoiling things, I’ll just say that one of the big revelations for the main characters is that sometimes what we think are our biggest strong points (like being “nice” or honest) actually hurt us and the people around us.

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