When I was a child, my mother emphasized the virtue of kindness. I can still hear her soft voice encouraging me to be kind to my siblings or be kind to my friends. But what did kindness look like?
When I was a child, kindness often meant sharing my toys or taking one of my siblings along to the library–when I really wanted to be alone. And what was the benefit? My mother’s smile or even the surprise of a fun adventure with my sibling.
It doesn’t take long to see there is a great need for kindness in the world–often on a grand scale. Sometimes we may even feel overwhelmed by the need we see on the news–refugees fleeing from Syria, flood and earthquake victims, the families of drone strike victims. What do our individual acts of kindness mean when stretched onto the world canvas? How can we make a difference?
When we feel overwhelmed by the needs of our communities, often the first response is shut down, to turn away. If we can just avert our eyes, then we are safe from acting. And then I remember what a friend who works at Baltimore’s Healthcare for the Homeless told me: “Even if you don’t want to or can’t give a person money, please look at them. Our clients say the worst pain of being homeless is the feeling that they are invisible.”
Digging deeper into my psych after that encounter, I had to admit why it was hard to look into the eyes of people who are homeless: It’s that chilling realization that is could happen to me. And in that moment, I know what I had to do. I resolved that even if I didn’t have money to give or didn’t choose to give money, I could give my attention. I could say “I’m praying for you,” or “God bless you.” It was in realizing that I, too, could lose something precious that I found a simple way to be kind. It was in realizing my connection that I could reach out.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” exorts readers to do much the same thing. She starts by saying “Before you know what kindness really is/you must lose things,…” Enjoy the poem. What do you have to lose?
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 your 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 sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase 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.
~from Words Under the Words, Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye