I once had a Volkswagen camper and I felt somewhat obliged by the tradition to put stickers on it. I ordered a whole slew of what I thought were witty and wise sayings to plaster on the back to amuse and enlighten any traveler who got too close on our road trips. What’s interesting that the only sticker others commented on (and often) was the sticker that just said, “Be Kind.”
Even as I write that, I feel softer in my Being. Although the human race seems to be racing to self-destruction in many ways, I also sense that at the core of being human is the need for kindness and also the actual need to be kind to others–that in being kind we fill out our humanness–particularly when we are kind to those who have been unkind to us; that is when we may even tiptoe toward our divinity. I’m inspired to write about kindness today because someone was kind to me today. And I felt my whole self lighten up in response. It was such a small thing but I felt of worth. Being kind is a kind of being in the world, an orientation toward life that just may keep us on the planet a little longer.
And I’m also writing on kindness because I ran across a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that I have loved for a long time but then let it become dusty in memory. It comes from her book Words Beneath the Words and you can hear her speak about this poem on the podcast On Being with Krista Tibbet. She suggests that our kindness comes from knowing the suffering of life, that this breaks us down past our ego defenses to a vulnerable heart capable of forgiveness and understanding (my words). I think at times I have been kind under false pretenses; I have given of time or money to salve my guilt. I have helped out to make myself feel good about myself. I have stopped to listen because I thought it was a responsibility. But there is so much humility in kindness for it to be pure. Nye seems to speak to me, telling me that it is the human experience of suffering that has to be shared to know “what kindness really is.” I also love her prompting to “see the size of the cloth.” We all have suffered and suffer in this moment in obvious and in hidden ways, tragic and small. I remember feeling it so acutely and sweetly after the earthquake last November; kindnesses so purely shared. I hope this poem speaks to you as well.
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.