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  • Writer's pictureSonya Braverman


This is an honest-to-God true story. I swear.

"Just be nice." That's exactly what the sign said. Perhaps two feet by three feet around, it stood slightly askew, thrust into a neighbor's lawn not far from the street. The sign was meant to attract attention; it was colorful with cockeyed hand-drawn letters. Not a slap-and-dash kind of thing, it was obvious the author cared because he or she had spent some time making sure it was just right.

You couldn't miss it.

I wonder why the individual placed it there? Was he or she the victim of somebody else's lack of kindness? Or did they hear about something unkind from a friend or relative? Or maybe they were simply fed up with the latest news reports about how the angry world we live in is just getting angrier?

Simply turn on the television or open the newspaper to learn about murders in Georgia or mass shootings all over the world; or neglected and abused children and battered wives; or the Republicans bashing the Democrats and vice-versa, both slinging insults and lies at each other with equal force.

All you have to do is chat with a friend to hear about how children openly disrespect their teachers and parents, this neighbor hates that neighbor, family members spread mean-spirited gossip, and long-time friends stop speaking to one another. Doesn't anyone behave with respect towards their fellow human beings anymore?

What's this world coming to? It scares me. It reallyscares me.

But let's get back to the sign.

Normally, I would've passed by the sign and not thought too much about it. "That's sweet," I might have said to myself. "Pretty colors, too." I probably wouldn't have given much thought to it. But that's not what happened.

"Stop the car!" I squealed to my husband who was calmly driving down a residential street in our neighborhood.

"What's wrong?" he shouted, his foot destined for the brake.

"Nothing's wrong. Did you see that sign?"

"What sign?"

"That one!" I said gesturing out the window to my right. We sat there for maybe thirty seconds while I studied the sign and then drove away. But the words, "Just Be Nice," stuck with me and I couldn't shake them loose.

A few days earlier, I'd received a particularly unpleasant e-mail. It was sent by the Director of an organization that offers classes for people fifty and older in a local church not far from my home. I've taken classes there for years. It's a friendly and supportive environment.

This is how the e-mail began: "Cruelty will not be tolerated . . ."

"Huh?" I read the sentence again. Puzzled and eager to find out what could've prompted such a strong statement, I read on.

The rest of the e-mail went something like this, "There was an unfortunate incident yesterday . . . in the handicapped parking area." The e-mail went on to describe a situation in the parking lot of the church where the classes are held. One student, observing that another student had parked illegally in a handicapped space, left a nasty note using unkind words with lots of exclamation marks on the window shield of that individual's vehicle.

"[We] want to embody a warm welcome space," the Director continued. "Please assist us in remembering to be kind and not take matters into your own hands." The Director called the incident "cruelty with intent to shame." She ended the e-mail by saying, "Please remember the 'Golden Rule.'"

OK, this a joke. Of course, -- a belated April Fool's gag.

But it wasn't a joke. I was surprised. No. I was stunned. Who would do such a thing in the church parking lot?

All of the students in this program are over fifty, and most of them a decade or more older than that. Why must we be reminded to "be kind" and "remember the Golden Rule?" When I was in Kindergarten the only lessons we learned were about sharing and being nice. Shouldn't kindness be deeply ingrained in one's character by the time one is over fifty? Has being nice fallen into disrepute along with so many other characteristics of civilized society? Maybe so.

Or has the concept of being nice just slipped our minds? Is it that we don't have time to be nice anymore? Has the fast-moving, chaotic, and complicated world we live in corrupted us into believing that nice doesn't matter? Or has unkindness become a way of life, a bad habit, or contagious disease? Or perhaps it's simply become more acceptable to behave badly.

Have we evolved to believe that we can't prove our point unless we behave rudely towards another person? Or do we think there's a better chance we'll be heard if we shout and use disrespectful language with a lot of extra exclamation points?

Are we so willing to behave inappropriately just to prove our point that we've ceased caring about whether or not the victim of our unkindness might pull out that gun tucked away in their waistband and shoot us dead right between the eyes? Would it be worth it? About a parking space?

Given the choice between behaving in a kind or unkind manner, do we just not give a damn anymore? Has it become so important to be right, wild emotions and all, without any forethought or modicum of nicey-nice pussy-footin' around to get our point across? There are so many situations in this world on which we could pin an unkind note, why not save it for the incidents that really, truly matter?

Sure, there are times when a lack of kindness and disrespect towards another person may be warranted. But they're the extremes. If someone purposefully set fire to my home. Or if I were to observe someone actively abusing a child. Or notice kids bullying other kids. I guarantee you I wouldn't have a lot of kind or respectful words in those situations.

It's a troubling issue. And it doesn't look like our unkind, angry world is changing anytime soon. What might happenif all of us, when presented with a situation in which we could choose between behaving in either a kind or unkind manner, always chose the former? What if we took every opportunity to smile and place a kind and loving note on the windshield of all the cars in the church parking lot? Would we experience our world as a safer, more hospitable, and loving place in which to dwell?

It would be an interesting experiment, wouldn't it? Would you volunteer to be the first person to contribute his or her share to changing the world, one kind word at a time?

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