Compassion vs Niceness, Identity, and Some Tamora Pierce References

Since the death of my friend and godmother, Kathryn, last year, I’ve been dealing with some Big Life Things–graduation with my MFA, recovering from a year and a half of being housebound and bedridden, getting engaged, planning a wedding, dealing with my parents’ divorce, big issues with my siblings, travel, new health issues, and just a lot of stuff that’s affected my concept of myself and my identity. Because processing grief doesn’t happen in a vacuum, my missing her and dealing with her passing sort of merged with all of those issues and I became sort of fixated on what I thought would be disappointing her about me because I felt like I was disappointing everyone else. I thought that perhaps those people were right—maybe I was judgmental, mean, oversensitive, cruel, hard to like and harder to love. I clung to how much Kathryn had liked and loved me and I asked myself what she would want to see more of in me. Whether the root of the question was super problematic or not (hint: it was,) I came to the conclusion that she would ask the same thing of me that she asked of the world at large: compassion.


However, doing that has meant struggling with the meaning of compassion and what I’m supposed to do with it. It is easy to see it as the idea of being kind and gentle and empathetic and nice to everyone. But as the sociopolitical tensions mount in the world, so do tensions in interpersonal relationships. When does someone stop being your friend if they reveal that they don’t believe in human rights for ALL humans? In the face of most things, Kathryn would laugh and shake her head and say nothing about someone’s personal foibles—after all, civility and courtesy are the hallmarks of a kind person. But not all things. Not, perhaps, these things. She was a feminist and an activist. She went to protests in real life and delivered thoughtfully-worded and remarkably polite smackdowns on the internet. She had firm beliefs about standing up for others and for yourself when you have to. But I never saw her scream at anyone or be cruel—she’d scream an open letter to evil people, maybe, and she’d certainly express things vehemently, but I never saw her be mean. And I’m not going to lie, I can be really mean.

So, as some of my friends and even some family have begun to reveal disturbing world views, often via very personal situations, I am left wondering if people didn’t say the same sorts of things to her as they do to me, if her boundaries just kept the unpleasantness a little further back, or if she was just really, really good at reining it in. I honestly don’t know. Would she suggest I keep calm and carry on and just walk away? Or is silence in the face of abuse just enabling the abuser? Do a few gentle words of disapproval actually do enough in these situations, or is it sometimes better to be mean to horrible people? Is it okay to snap sometimes and yell at someone who crosses your boundaries too many times? Is it alright to tell someone who has been your friend for years to fuck right off if they think that keeping people in concentration camps is okay? That one is perhaps obvious. But how does that translate to when a friend or family member spends hours asking you to do things with/for them and share your opinions and then tells you that you’re judgmental and the opinions they asked for are worthless? Spend less time with them, I guess, but what happens when it’s more complex than that? What happens when your livelihood is a factor? What about when your brain damage means that the words don’t come out the way you want them to anymore, when you can’t gather your thoughts to express them properly at all, let alone gently? Where do compassion, pragmatism, kindness, self-care, and the need to express feelings meet, and how do you keep them in balance?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t. But after over a year of trying to figure it out, I do know that compassion can’t possibly mean being nice to everyone all the time. And I know Kathryn loved me, sharp tongue and all—just because her compassion was more graceful doesn’t necessarily mean that mine isn’t good enough. This is the woman who handed me my first Tamora Pierce novel and introduced me to characters like Rosethorn, a woman who suffered no fools, had a razor for a tongue, could threaten to hang you by your ears in a well, and yet was somehow gentle and kind to the people and creatures who needed it, when they needed it—sometimes while yelling at them.

So I think maybe it means biting my tongue sometimes when a friend or family member dates someone I can’t stand, not because I don’t have completely legitimate thoughts on why their significant other is terrible, but because I choose to be gentler when I can be—but maybe not biting it all the time, maybe just picking my moment instead of trying to express all my thoughts every single minute.

Maybe it means putting myself in someone else’s shoes and thinking about why they act how they do and what they’re feeling and seeing if that makes it easier to be nice to them.

Maybe it’s keeping some of my less immediate or important opinions close to the vest unless they’re asked for.

Maybe it means being gentler with the people who are gentle with me.

Maybe it means trying to like and see the best in people, especially when my first inclination is to be jealous or suspicious or bitter.

But I don’t think it means not verbally expressing clear boundaries, limits, and opinions on things that actively affect me.

I definitely don’t think it means not being angry or expressing that anger when people do bad or cruel things, either to me or to others.

I don’t think it means always being nice to people who are willfully ignorant or intentionally cruel or even just persistently callous.

I don’t think it means biting my tongue in the face of racism, rape culture, Nazism, or other human awfulness.

I definitely don’t think it means trying to understand and forgive and be kind to everyone. I think I’m allowed to just try to be courteous to people I dislike, kind to people I love, and still tell rape apologists and Nazis to go eat shit and die. I think that’s how that works. (I mean, she’d probably want me to phrase it in a less coarse and more devastating way and possibly add in a Shakespearean insult, but the point stands.)

I don’t think she’d be disappointed in me for not being the nicest. I’ve always been crotchety and opinionated and loud and she never seemed to love me any less for it—she was compassionate in a way I can understand, a way where she saw what I meant and, usually gently but sometimes with an exasperated sigh and a stern word, helped bring my actions and language closer to whatever that was. And maybe it’s obvious and easy for you to be like, “Yeah, Alena, chill, she loved you, she’s not judging you from beyond the veil of death, that’s insane.” But you should know by now that I have absolutely zero chill and it turns out that when most of the people that are supposed to love you are telling you what a shit person you are, how wildly inadequate you are, it’s hard to not feel like you somehow tricked one of the few people who didn’t think that, especially when they’re not physically present to confirm that they did, in fact, know you, and did, in fact, love you. It’s hard, okay? It shouldn’t be, but it’s hard and I spend so much time feeling like I’m drowning in it.

I come back to that first Tamora Pierce book she handed me—one afternoon in the Lumpkin County library, she reached up on tiptoe to pull it off a shelf in the YA section. She handed me Street Magic and my whole world changed. I was handed heroes and heroines who had all different skin colors, were of different social classes, were skinny and fat, were gifted at different things—who were good, even if they weren’t always terribly nice. And I think she handed me that particular book—the book in which a sharp-tongued woman features most prominently as a loving, protective, kind, and compassionate, but definitely not nice, figure worthy of respect, admiration, and love—absolutely on purpose. Later, I backtracked in the series and met Lark, the gentle, soft spoken, strangely athletic creatrix who was Rosethorn’s partner and co-mentor of the protagonists, and I was thrilled, thrilled that she wasn’t elevated above Rosethorn because she was “nicer;” she was her partner and friend and understood that there could be different ways to love people and interact with them that didn’t mean changing or editing or censoring everything that wanted to come out of my mouth. Maybe not all the nice people who loved me needed me to be the same sort of good that they were. That kept me going for a long time.

street magic

When Kathryn passed, I think I lost my way with that a little. Or maybe just lost it a little more–I definitely had a pendulum thing happen in college where I went from being ruthless and defensive and offensive to being a doormat who let people take terrible advantage of and hurt me. Maybe now I can swing back to the middle, or at least closer to it—I’m leaning a little harder towards the angry side, I can’t pretend I’m not, but I think that’s necessary for me to be able to survive the world’s craziness right now. Abortion is illegal in my state now. I think anger is appropriate. But I digress.


The reality is that, even though it would be really easy to simplify Kathryn into “the nice one,” she was way more complex than that. She was the creative one, the feminist one, the bookish one, the mothering one, the sisterly one, the let’s go dancing one, the one who spoke like a zillion languages, the poetic one, the scholarly one, the teacherly one, the one who celebrated things with pie, the short one, the surprisingly athletic one, the one who was way more things than should have logically fit into her tiny human vessel. She’s not some angel sitting on my shoulder, judging me when I can’t stay silent about a friend dating a domestic abuser or bite my tongue over a family member being a rape apologist. She’s the voice in my head that says, “Eat that pie, girl!” and, “Carrying a pink pussy hat purse in a conservative environment is a lovely form of peaceful protest,” and, “The sign says no loitering, but we’re not loitering, we’re eating.” She’s the one who, when people were horrible to me on the internet, casually commented with the 10 Commandments of Logical Fallacies and just listed the numbers that correlated to the flaws in their arguments. She’s the one who taught me that Pride and Prejudice was more than a historical romance novel, that it was incisive social commentary and that things and people could be more than one thing—possibly even clever, somewhat judgmental, good people, and capable of love. She dedicated three whole books to me, so she probably thought I was pretty okay and I should maybe stop freaking out about posthumously disappointing her by not changing my ENTIRE CHARACTER.

I don’t think she’d need me to try to be just like her—I think she would appreciate the compliment and then gently remind me that she already existed and I should be something different because I am something different. I think she’d be kind of bemused by the fact that I’ve been trying so hard to be like her, actually. I think she’d want me to be whatever I need to be so that I stay strong and confident and healthy enough to protect myself and others. I think she’d probably be pretty okay with it if that sometimes means not being polite to friends or family members who repeatedly cross my expressed boundaries, or if it means yelling at a sexist abuse and statutory rape apologist on Facebook, or if it means telling someone I’ve known my whole life that we can’t be friends if they’re going to support someone like Trump. I think she’d be pretty thrilled if I punched a Nazi—as long as I made sure they couldn’t later identify my face and didn’t do it in a way that endangered my safety (or the safety of others) or got me arrested. I think she’d probably be far more thrilled if I wrote a book about a young girl thwarting (and maybe punching) Nazi corollary figures and saving the world because it would be more effective on a larger scale, but the point is that I don’t think she’d mind if I’m a coarser grit sandpaper than she was. I think that compassion and niceness are probably definitely actually not the same, even though Kathryn was both compassionate and nice. I think maybe there will be a few people, when all is said and done, who don’t want or expect me to be anything but the best version of the person I actually am, even if they’re not all the people I would have assumed or wished they were.

Rosethorn was always my favorite anyway.


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