Want to create interesting, authentic characters? Here’s the work you need to do.  

So, I’ve been working toward being Not N.I.C.E.

It’s been going well except for this one thing….

I recently yelled at my dad.

He’s been staying with me for the past three weeks. This is the most time we’ve spent under the same roof in my adult life. 

A few years ago, he developed congestive heart failure, which is now progressing rapidly—putting him on what I like to call PT (precious time).

We’ve spent a good portion of this visit assembling a ukulele kit. Building a guitar from scratch has been one of my dad’s lifelong dreams. I wanted to help turn that dream into a reality and perhaps make some memories along the way. I already feel the essays about this experience knitting themselves into my soul. For now, let me just say that building an instrument is much harder than the videos suggest. 

Also, it requires an insane number of clamps, and lots and lots of glue.

Yelling in anger isn’t something I do often.

My frustration stemmed from feeling more like project manager than helper, and perhaps needing something from the experience I wasn’t getting and not knowing how to express it. So, I raised my voice while we were trying, and failing, and trying yet again to glue the ukulele’s body together.

I don’t regret anything I said. I just wish I’d said it in a calmer way and perhaps with a little more care, because while I don’t want to be N.I.C.E., I do want to be kind.

The experience made me consider what we owe to each other—and our characters—as we work to be in charge of our experiences.

Mental health advocate and writer Marisa Russello shared the following when it comes to being N.I.C.E.:

“Being nice is passive and polite, and it means the person is afraid to upset people. They only want to be noticed for being nice. Someone kind genuinely cares about people, but also doesn’t mind the possibility of upsetting others if they’re taking a stand for what they believe is right.”

Allison K. Williams shared a quote with a similar message on Instagram:

“…’nice’ is often about doing good things for the sake of winning people over, but ‘kindness’ is about doing good things simply because they’re the right thing to do.”

True kindness stems from empathy and compassion.

Brené Brown teases out the difference between compassion and empathy in her book Atlas of the Heart. She sees compassion as the “daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving kindness and take action in the face of suffering.”

Empathy is the most powerful skill we can use in our daily compassion practice. To be empathic, “we must be willing to: 

  • take on another’s perspective,
  • remain free from judgement,
  • recognize another’s emotions by opening our heart to our own,
  • communicate our understanding of the emotions,
  • and practice mindfulness, by not pushing away emotion because it’s uncomfortable, but instead feeling it and moving through it.”

She uses the following quote from Pema Chödrön’s The Places that Scare You to deepen her definition:

“When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience our fear and pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us…. In cultivating compassion, we draw from the wholeness of our experience—our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror.”

Suffering. Cruelty. Terror. Those are the emotions I’m excited to acknowledge, said no one ever.

While I first wanted to recoil from Pema’s definition, she makes a great point. We can only accept in others what we accept in ourselves. That’s as true for the humans in our lives as it is for our characters.

If we learn to embrace the angry, agenda-filled, misunderstood parts of ourselves that need something they can’t name, we will become kinder human beings who write more interesting characters.

The part we must embrace is the one that:

  • sometimes yells at Dads who are on PT
  • rubs across our scars and feels a slice of pain
  • harbors revenge fantasies against those who’ve done us wrong
  • wants to use writing to exact said revenge
  • fears a critique group’s suggestions are the same as failure
  • fears we’ll die without having completed the projects we care about most

A few days after yelling at my dad, I completed a walking meditation where I connected with my fears over not having enough time to complete projects (both his and mine) and the fear-tinged pain of watching my father decline.

When I expressed this to him, he talked about his fears of screwing up this project, worry that we’d fight our way through this endeavor, and his affinity for procrastination.

Connecting with my father’s humanity softened my heart and allowed an important lesson to resurface—one the coach in me knows and lives. While I can provide structure, support, and accountability, only the dreamer can complete the dream. That’s true of writers and family members.

After our conversation, my dad’s enthusiasm for this project strengthened, and we learned to work as a team. While he’ll need to finish the project once he’s home, the pieces of wood we were given now look like an instrument. You can see a slideshow of our progress below.

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