When it Comes to Being Good the Devil’s in the Details

When honesty is merely brutality, and other soapboxing

We admire the mighty over the meritorious. The wealthy, powerful, and genetically-blessed provoke our envy, and thus we place them on a pedestal, a lofty position often unwarranted by their character. What’s worse is that we’re often fooled by flashy gestures and wolves in sheep’s clothing when it comes to goodness—the one thing that we should value—and so I caution you, beware of those who…

Are honest because they lack restraint

‘People who are brutally honest generally enjoy the brutality more than the honesty.’ — Richard Needham

Honest people are a rare gift; you’ll always know exactly where you stand with them. They are honest about what they want and what they want from you. They don’t cower before confrontation; they’ll never phase out of a friendship or ghost you after a date to spare themselves minor discomfort at the price of your pain and confusion.

A forthright person will decline an invitation on the spot, weathering your infinitesimal disappointment and flitting microexpression of disapproval, rather than plan to cancel two minutes prior (after making you rearrange your schedule multiple times to accommodate them, of course).

Their honesty isn’t a tight-lipped one either. After all, it’s easy to be honest when you share almost nothing. People with integrity understand trust is earned incrementally and cannot be cemented by declaring ‘I’m a very honest person’ without offering a shred of proof. Their word is their bond, easily verifiable, and always consistent with their actions.

Honourable people don’t use honesty as an excuse, proclaiming themselves a “pussy”, “bitch”, or “arsehole” to absolve themselves of all responsibility to treat you well. They aren’t interested in disparaging others, let alone exploiting their tendency to see the good in people and thus dismiss self-deprecating remarks as hyperbole. (Or even take such admissions as evidence of low self-esteem in need of coddling, or an apology for past misdeeds rather than a promise of more to come.)

Nor do they view honesty as a cudgel rather than an olive branch. Such men and women temper honesty with restraint. They speak from a place of sincerity; when they’re upfront about their concerns, their goal is to mend, not hurt. They always act in the spirit of the William Blake quote, ‘A truth that’s told with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent’.

Are nice as long as it doesn’t cost them

I’ve met many a terribly unkind and yet impeccably well-mannered person. Their politeness was icy and perfunctory, or else they wielded it like a weapon. Worse than haughty, unfeeling automatons are the people whose cruelty is not just cloaked by their social graces but accented, as though they’d wrapped themselves in the metaphorical equivalent of a sable fur coat. Sometimes decorum is merely a way to assert superiority for those more interested in being high-handed than high-minded.

Picture the oh-so-magnanimous mean girl who takes great pains to inform you that not only were you not invited to her soirée, but that she did this to spare you the embarrassment of appearing in last season’s dress. (I’ll take unvarnished rudeness over the gloss of feigned civility any day. At least it doesn’t require you to be complicit in your own humiliation.)

Here’s another thing, if you hand a homeless person a submarine sandwich with one hand and record the interaction on your phone with the other—that’s not kindness. That’s exploitation, and there’s no way to gild that turd. People who are genuinely kind wish to ease your burden; they wouldn’t dream of adding the millstone of guilt and shame to it. Or to cast you as an extra in their filmed, fantastical exploits.

Real kindness is not paint-by-numbers, it doesn’t earn for the limelight, and it’s never motivated by the prospect of adulation or glory. It’s thoughtful, subtle, and to an extent, selfless. Truly kind people know a good deed is its own reward and, in fact, often comes at a cost to the giver. And they know it’s a deed.

Kindness is an action, not a declarative statement. If you proclaim yourself compassionate and empathetic, the proof’s got to be in the pudding.

Are liked by everyone because they haven’t the courage for conviction

It’s easy to parrot whatever’s in vogue to score brownie points. However, it’s better to think critically and act morally. It’s harder to swim against the tide than get swept along with it. While most are busy chugging the Kool-Aid till they’re sweating it out of every pore, others are standing up for what’s right and reasonable.

People who have the courage to be disliked might not win your flighty affections, but they’ll secure my admiration even without courting it.

Treat strangers well but…

Some people treat strangers with genuine respect, friendliness, and even solicitousness. However, their nearest and dearest are kept at arm’s length so that close scrutiny, which could reveal a chink in the armour or even scuffs upon its gleaming breastplate, is not possible. Image matters most, and these people see themselves as an Impressionist painting, best admired from afar.

When I was living in Japan, a classmate once gushed about my friend’s level of hospitality. Their mothers knew each other through work, so she invited him to her dorm across the Kamo River and cooked him—what was to a college student—an extravagant dinner, likely comprising a curry powder cube, carrots, rice and potatoes, and dollar-store chocolate.

Though I echoed his sentiments, the more he praised her, the colder it left me. It was dawning on me, the realisation that she kept everyone—even her closest friends—at a calculated and unbridgeable distance. And thus, my last bit of advice is to be wary of those who treat strangers well… and their friends no better.


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