By Naomi Shihab Nye, Palestinian-American poet and author of fiction, essays and children’s books
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.
Nye explains the poem, excerpted from an interview at spiritualityhealth.com:
My husband, Michael, and I were on our honeymoon in Colombia in 1978. We knew we were in a difficult country filled with drug smugglers, but we were both optimists and felt we would be able to make it through. We ended up being robbed on a bus in the middle of the night. They took everything we had—passports, tickets, cameras, all our money—everything. It was a very stark experience. An Indian on our bus was killed, and there was the feeling that we could be next.
We got back on the bus, and the Indian was just left by the side of the road. We decided that Michael would have to hitchhike, even though it was very dangerous, to a larger city where he hoped he could get our travelers checks reinstated. I was left alone in this unknown town. I had no idea how would I eat or where I would sleep for the days until he returned.
I sat down in the plaza at the center of the town. All I had left was a little paper notebook and a pencil that had been in my back pocket (talk about traveling light!). I was trembling. It was twilight. I took out my pencil. I need a little guidance here, I thought. I need to know what to do next. And the poem “Kindness” seemed to float through the air of that little town and land on my page. It was like automatic writing; I wasn’t writing down concepts that I already knew and took for granted or had seen in practice. The ‘you’ in the poem is really me. I felt like some element in the air was speaking to me: “Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things.”
Once I had written it down, things came clearer. I knew what I could do to find something to eat, where I might go to find a place to sleep. This gift of openness and possibility overtook the sense of being stricken. The poem was a lever I held onto as I found my way.
There was this gang of street ragamuffins who collected Coke bottles and turned them in for a few pesos so they could buy a bun to eat. I realized they knew something I needed to know: when you have nothing, where do you get a bit of food? I showed them that I had nothing, no bag, no purse, no wallet, nothing, and I needed their help. They were so gracious! They allowed me to join their group and eat a bun now and then.
Once the poem was printed, it started having its own life. Now it belongs to so many people in different ways. I’ve always believed poems are in the air around us. If we listen in a certain way, they will find us. If we allow them into our minds and consciousness, they can help us and then if we send them out, any way we can, then there’s the possibility of them having a bigger life than any life we could ever have dreamed for them.