When you think of the word, “kindness,” what first comes to mind? I think of the generosity of people throughout my life who’ve shown me thoughtfulness and compassion – sometimes even unwarranted. I know what it feels like to receive kindness, and less so, what it feels like to give it. This week, On Being’s Krista Tippet interviewed poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Naomi tells a story of being in Columbia on a three-month trip. Into the first week, she and her husband have everything taken from them, and yet a stranger shows them tender humanity with only a few words. Her poem, “Kindness” was written shortly afterwards. The sharing of the poem itself is deeply, kindly moving. Here are her words:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till you voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and send you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.