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The Grit and Tender Gravity of Kindness

I’ve always been impressed by the “alchemy” of the human heart — by its capacity to transform the suffering that comes to all of us into compassion and generosity of spirit.

I know so many people who have used their own wounds to become “wounded healers.” Instead of growing bitter and passing their pain on to others, they’ve said, “This is where the pain stops and the love begins.”

They’ve become better able to offer understanding and compassion to others — not in spite of their suffering, but because of it.

“Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, is a powerful reflection on suffering transformed. It’s a gritty, sometimes grim poem about a virtue we too often romanticize. But in a world that can be as heedless and heartless as ours, kindness must grow from deep inner roots if it is to stand strong and be sustained. As the poet says:

“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

As I read this poem, I give thanks for all the wounded healers I know. And I ask myself what I might do today to allow suffering — my own and others’ — to open my heart up instead of shutting it down.

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 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.

“Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Far Corner Books.

This poem was originally read in the On Being episode “Your Life Is a Poem.”

Watch a poetry film version of this on our YouTube channel.




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