“Let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped,” Carl Sagan urged in his beautiful and timely case for moving beyond us vs. them and marrying conviction with compassion. But what does kindness mean, really, and how does it manifest?
The measure of true kindness — which is different from nicety, different from politeness — is often revealed in those challenging instances when we must rise above the impulse toward its opposite, ignited by fear and anger and despair.
That’s what the poet Naomi Shihab Nye captures with grounding and elevating tenderness in her poem “Kindness,” found in Words Under Words: Selected Poems (public library).
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.
In her altogether elevating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Nye tells the remarkable real-life backstory that inspired this beloved poem — a story that only lends more potency to the poem’s message:
Complement with Ta-Nehisi Coates on our conditioned resistance to kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor on how it became our forbidden pleasure, and Einstein on its centrality in our existence.