The first indication that I was a nice guy happened at about 4 years old.
The details of the memory are fuzzy, as if I experienced it in a dream. My family was attending a church pig-roast with my aunt, uncle, and cousin.
The event took place in an open field with short, clumpy grass, backed by a cluster of trees. Folding tables and chairs spread out over the uneven ground. Long folding tables held typical potluck foods; potato salad, coleslaw, and cookies. An asphalt parking lot stood opposite the trees.
Near the trees, a cylindrical metal cage spun slowly over a fire. An unidentified, opaque, pinkish-brown mass filled the cage, some of which spilled over the thin gray metal bars. What is that thing? I thought. 4-year-old me, without the capability of putting two and two together, was clueless.
Upon further examination, I noticed something that looked like an apple, protruding from a small opening in the pinkish-brown mass. This piqued my interest.
Further investigation revealed two darker-brown ear-shaped protrusions, as well as what appeared to be a face. What could it be?
What’s in there? I curiously inquired. My naivete shielded me from the icky truth I didn’t want to hear.
That’s the pig my mom said.
The apple. The ears. The pig roast. The dots connected quickly; quicker than my fragile emotions could manage. The system overloaded. Tears started down my face.
Did it die in that little cage? Was it burned to death, without being able to defend itself? Is the world so cruel? I sobbed. A lot.
The processing of this information lasted microseconds; the physical effects for minutes, and the memory until this very day. This may be the absolute earliest memory of my life.
What’s wrong? My aunt wondered.
Nathan’s upset about the pig.
This episode remains firmly (yet fuzzily) replay-able in my brain as possibly my earliest memory. This raw, pre-social-conditioning moment showcased my sensitivity; the fact that I could become devastated about an animal, especially a dirty farm animal, showed that I had a heart. This landmark moment demonstrated to my family and I that I was destined to be a nice guy. Or was I?
We all know that nice guys finish last. It’s easy to come to this conclusion after seeing one failure; the guy not getting the girl, the guy not getting the promotion, the guy getting ripped off but is too uncomfortable to make a scene.
Jumping to this conclusion is hasty. It is a self-fulfilling mental shortcut. The second someone says this, the easiest thing to do is think about how it applies to you. This is true for any conversation you ever have with someone. How does it apply to me?
You apply it to your own experience, reinforce it, and forge it in your brain. Most people have some emotional association to this; whether it was one experience or your whole life, being walked on is an authentic human fear.
Starting in my teens, I was a textbook nice guy. I was uncomfortable in my own skin… which led to various social weaknesses; always looking for validation, no success with women (my first kiss was at 20, and I didn’t even initiate it), and a cringe-worthy amount of over-thinking and trying too hard. Thinking about it makes the wrinkle on my forehead start to form.
You can see it in photos. Our subconscious has this amazing ability to distinguish how people feel about themselves, regardless of fluctuations in daily mood. We have a built-in self-esteem radar that can be even more highly-tuned with practice.
This behavior continued into my 20s, but as I grew more and more comfortable with myself, I started to shed my old, uncomfortable skin; like a weighted vest, I started to remove it, pound-by-pound.
I tried things. Things that felt like spectacular failures, that realistically, no one noticed. Things I was not at all confident about, but someone online told me to try it, so I went with it. I failed a lot, and learned even more. Trying and failing have been an incredibly painful but vital part of the growing process. I’ve learned what I am best at, how I can contribute to someone’s life, and most importantly, when I should just shut the fuck up.
My girlfriend didn’t think I was the kind of guy who would kiss her on the first date. I did. Nice guys don’t always have to do nice guy things. Doing something outside your typical character is how you grow.
As a person, I have not changed. I still see myself as a nice guy, though I know that some would vehemently disagree. I don’t like to make a scene. I don’t like to piss people off. I sometimes have a hard time calling people out on their bullshit, though I can feel this trending in a more honest direction.
I still eat pork, but feel an uncomfortable sympathy seeing a pig being slow-roasted over a hot fire. Some things never change.