By Kristin van Ogtrop
Updated January 26, 2015
amanaimagesRF / Getty Images

Have you ever had someone write something horrible online that was to you, for you, or about you? You know, the sort of thing that most people (either out of a sense of politeness or sheer cowardice) would not say to your face, but have no problem saying online, for all the world to see? Yes, we’ve all read about how people are just meaner online, it’s a brave new world, we can’t take stuff so personally. After all, we are adults, and we have a thick skin.

Or do we?

A few years back I published a blog post about how I had rented a Dumpster to clear a lot of stuff out of my basement. For me, it was liberating. For one of the readers of my blog, it was a battle cry. From her reaction, I was not just an over scheduled suburban mom with a new idea to rid my house of stuff that no one would want (really—broken hamster cages and the like), but, well, the Antichrist. This lady (I have blocked out her name, probably as some sort of defense mechanism) really let me have it.

Then I published a book. You know, you publish a book and some people (even people who are not related to you!) love it. Others really don’t, and they give you one star on and explain what a stupid little book you have published and what a horrible writer and thinker (or nonthinker, as the case may be) you are. OK, my book was not War and Peace, but ouch. (I console myself with the thought that said reviewers are people I have had to fire at some point in my career. There haven’t been that many, but I think they’re all still alive.) You give yourself the Nietzsche, that-which-does-not-kill-you-makes-you-stronger pep talk. But still, attacks—especially those that seem personal—get to you.

Needless to say, you don’t have to write a blog or publish a book to be attacked online. My husband seems to read about 200 blogs and, I swear, 199 of them feature commenters who appear to be vying for some sort of antihumanity prize in tone and message. The person who can most cleverly excoriate another commenter wins. Extra credit if you can work in an expletive.

“Nice” is such an awful word, in a way. It’s a word that many of us don’t use with sincerity after, say, the third grade. Who wants to be described as “nice?” It’s so bland, so safe, so vanilla. And yet. Remember the wonderful Henry James quote, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” I’m not going to get into the differences between kindness and niceness; for our purposes, they are interchangeable. And Henry James was absolutely right.

There are three things in human life that are important. And you know them all.