Filling life with only nice people
Robots want, but don't demand, to be loved by you.
Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen—
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice—
So many different people
In the same device.
—from the Fifty-third Calypso of Bokonon, an invented religion in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle
Robots need love, too. They want to be loved by you. More on this later. In the meantime, here's a confession: I love the reality show "Top Chef"—never miss an episode. If you know me, and if you've seen the show, you might be surprised at my tolerance for the interpersonal conflict and snarkiness that seem to be the mode du jour of reality show chefs. "Nice," as a personal modifier, is in shorter supply than the white truffle; as a modifier of food, though, it's a staple. Almost every chef describes his food as a "nice" this or a "nice" that: "Here we have for you a nice hamachi, surprisingly but nicely paired with a nice sous vide duck." This drives me nuts. Not because I expect chefs to be wordsmiths, but because I want the concept of niceness to be meaningful. Instead, "nice" is a filler, an amuse-bouche, a pause before substance.
In one of my favourite lectures, "Non-Christians Are Nice People, Too," Wade Bradshaw says that Christian parents and youth group leaders are far too often surprised when they find out that the Christians in their care have developed romantic feelings for non-Christians. This should come as no surprise, he says, if we have a healthy understanding of the doctrine of common grace and if we understand that "niceness" is a compelling trait. It certainly is to me, at least the way that I define "nice."
The older I get, the pickier I become with my aesthetic preferences. If an artist seems, through her art or interviews or writing, not to be a nice person, I probably won't give her art a fair shake, no matter how compelling it is. Moreover, I find that I increasingly act this way toward just about everybody. Plainly put, I don't want to interact with those who aren't nice. This posture has always seemed reasonable, but I've been wondering, recently, whether it's good.
This musing on niceness is a result of listening to the album Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan. Mangan is a Canadian musician who has enjoyed success and acclaim in his home country for a few years, but is only recently being introduced to the rest of us. I found Mangan because (for reasons not worth mentioning) I'd been wanting to review a Canadian musician, so I started googling—get this—"nice Canadian musicians."
Understandably, I found Mangan quickly, not only because of the title of the album but because almost everyone, in just about every review of Mangan, mentions what a nice guy he seems to be. Thus, I was already disposed to like his music. Imagine my delight when I did actually like it.
Mangan is a gifted songwriter with a familiar voice. Think Josh Ritter or Ron Sexsmith or a less troubled Joseph Arthur. It's a solid, honest voice with some rasp thrown in for good measure. With a guitar, an upright bass, simple drums, and an occasional horn or banjo or string or clap, he's Sufjan without the orchestral glamour. His lyrics are personal without pretention, poetic without obfuscation, critical without accusation. Mangan is an acute observer, both of others and himself:
I'm Mr. Charming without the charming. And I can hear the eyebrows raise when I start singing. 'Cause the songs I sing are all about myself. You can read me like a book, I'm not as clever as I look. I've got a sneaky kind of selfish that I keep up on the shelf with jars of double-sided comments for people who've done nothing wrong ("You Silly Git")
An autobiographical singer-songwriter is no rarity, but one with profound self-awareness is. Much of the self-awareness that fills his songs is a study of his relationship to those in his life who aren't particularly attractive: "[A]nd it's too easy to be awful to the ones you need the most" ("Some People"). Who are those people? In my life, at least, they're the ones crying to be noticed ("but I was poking and sort of prodding, and kinda hoping, and always watching, for a reaction . . . ."—"The Indie Queens Are Waiting"), the ones I deem to have nothing to offer, the ones on auto-pilot. Mangan calls them "robots." He knows about robots because he knows himself.
In the aptly titled song "Robots," which is addictively sing-able, Mangan describes a time in his life when he was detached and distant, had trouble getting out and interacting with the world, spent "half [his] life in the customer service line," there of his own accord but desperately wanting human interaction. That's why he ends the song by singing, and you will, too, with gospel-chorus conviction, "Robots need love, too, they want to be loved by you, they want to be loved by you."
They want, but don't demand, to be loved by you. I'm attracted to those I call "nice," I think, because they're passive with their need, with their loneliness, with their hurt. They don't demand anything of me, and they don't burden me. I can, then, go on living as if everything's okay and everyone is okay. But this is no kind of living; this way of living, in the end, turns me into one of the robots. In this sense, there's nothing nice about Mangan or his music, which disturbs my self-satisfaction and faux-peaceful coexistence. Nice people feed my pride, my feeling that all, under my watch, is stable, in control, on auto-pilot. I use nice people as a means of self-flattery. When I say that someone is nice, what I mean, I think, is that he is, or has the potential to be, nice to me, that he won't introduce conflict into my life. Conflict reveals my need and my inter-personal failures and requires active sacrifice, generosity, and goodness on my part.
"Nice," then, is paraphrase, code for "leaves me alone, feeds my pride." When I seek to fill my life only with nice people, I paraphrase them, myself, and reality. "But watch out for the paraphrase," Mangan sings in "Road Regrets," "for they will crown you [and] then they will take your legs." I want to be more aware of the ways that I paraphrase others, the ways that I don't love those who want to be loved, not just in general, but by me, specifically. Any of us can be nice, can live a filler life, can get stuck pausing before real life, before mystery. Everyone, as Eugene Peterson says in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, "is on to something that matters," "is on the verge of crying out 'My Lord and my God!'" Only when I set aside my demands for a peaceful, conflict-free life can I quit being nice and start being good, un-pause before mystery and enter into it, stop crying "peace, peace" when there is no peace and begin crying "My Lord and my God."
I was attracted to Mangan, initially, because he seemed nice. He is not nice. His lyrics have caused me to consider all the ways that I've been a robot. But robots need love, too. Dan Mangan knows this, and his music, though not nice, is certainly good and is, in its own way, a form of love.
(You can stream the entire album at www.danmanganmusic.com. On the gallery page at danmanganmusic.com, watch the award-winning video for "Road Regrets.")