[Note: While this post refers to ‘nice guys’, I believe the advice is good for ‘nice girls’ as well]
‘Nice guys finish last because they let everyone else go ahead of them’ – AIWAC
Walter White does not exist, of course. He is a work of fiction, invented solely for the purpose of television entertainment. But White’s persona, certainly that at the beginning of the series, matches that of many people we know. Like White, they are ‘nice guys’.
‘Nice guys’ are ostensibly what people should be – always looking out for others’ welfare, always polite, never complaining. They never turn anyone away or set boundaries. When on dates, nice guys do everything the date wants, no matter what, without asking for anything in return or negotiating. If married, his relationship to his spouse is that of a voluntary, unconditional servant.
But isn’t a nice guy what one is supposed to be? What’s the alternative? Being a domineering jerk?
This is a false choice. The choice is not between being a nice guy and a bad guy, but between a ‘nice guy’ and a ‘good guy’.
What’s the difference, you ask?
A good guy has a healthy sense of self and does not apologize for it. He has boundaries he will not let anyone cross, principles he will not compromise except perhaps under extreme duress. He does not apologize for who he is or what he likes, and when he improves himself or his behavior, it is on his own terms and of his own free will. The good guy loves and invests in himself and extends that love and investment to his peers, his friends and family. His giving is that of a bountiful fountain, with enough water both to sustain himself and his surroundings.
The nice guy is the negative image, or perhaps a caricature of the good guy. The nice guy has no sense of self, or has it and negates it to the point of oblivion. If the good guy steps off his gated property to give to others, the nice guy lets everyone walk all over his property without a fuss.
This behavior, while ostensibly laudable, is incredibly self-destructive. The desire for a healthy self and self-interests is a powerful and vital force, and it can only be suppressed for so long without negative consequences. Over time, the rage and the hurt of being used and trampled upon can and will build up, with one of the following happening:
Retreat – The nice guy will slowly retreat into his own world, trying desperately to avoid the world that is so hostile to him. He will become increasingly fearful, or perhaps more bitter and cynical.
Rebellion – This often happens during mid-life crises and the like, but not only. The guy wakes up to what is happening, and the sense of self comes roaring back in a desire to break apart all the chains that have been holding him down. Like a bolt from the blue, his peers will see a changed man, who has gone far to the other extreme of what he was. All of a sudden, he’s not the same guy, and usually not in a good way. Maybe he has an affair or breaks up the marriage he had. Maybe he goes down a different path, one that’s self-destructive. He may not become Walter White, but the ‘nice guy’ part of him is good and dead.
I once gave a class at a midrasha, where I asked every class member to think of a way in which they can improve themselves religiously, things they like to do. One of them told me they want to do charity work and help others. While it’s possible that this was a ‘good guy’ attitude, I warned her not to neglect herself and her own self-development, or she is going to resent the very people she sacrificed her time for.
My point, then is this:
Selfishness, contrary to what is often endorsed in our society and certainly in many religious circles, is not an evil force to be destroyed. It is a natural and healthy inclination to be channeled and moderated, just like everything else. Only by acknowledging yourself, your needs and your worth can you truly be a בעל חסד. Or, to quote Hillel:
אם אני כאן, הכל כאן. אם אני לא כאן, ואם איני כאן מי כאן.
ואידך זיל גמור