I walked into a coffee shop to kill time and write a blog on kindness. And what do I experience immediately but a nice, young man standing at the counter. What is a cortado, I ask? And a flat white? I was struck both by the array of choices and their prices. As he described the first choice, I said I’ll have that one. And then he said, put it on my tab. Oh no, I responded. Why not, he said. So I thanked him (again and again actually as if it was so very extraordinary) and sat down with my fancy drink to sip and write.
I’ve been thinking about kindness a lot. I’ve always subscribed to the random acts of kindness way of living, honestly – let someone in who’s merging into your lane, ask folks serving me at a restaurant or store how their day is going, smile at someone marginalized in our society if it feels safe, that kind of thing. Frankly, it’s not hard. I was jarred this week when I was honked at twice when I pulled out of my driveway and then later a parking lot. Maybe I was at fault or maybe these drivers were driving too fast. Debatable.
Public defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson and poet Naomi Shihab Nye have a different view of kindness than my comfortably situated one.
Stevenson talks about being “proximate” to suffering, that only in drawing close and not turning away can we truly effect change, or show kindness, in my words. Social change, he argues, doesn’t happen without our feeling uncomfortable and inconvenienced.
Poet Naomi Shihab agrees. She challenges us to draw close to suffering to really know kindness. Here are her provocative and beautiful words.
“Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
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.
From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995
I find her words beautiful and hard to digest.
Is it really true that living with sorrow is the only way to know kindness, or put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Do we need to experience loss to know the “tender gravity” of kindness?
My sunny nature wants to deny that loss and kindness go side by side, ‘though I’ve experienced loss. No doubt recognizing the humanity of the Indian lying dead at the side of the road, that he too had dreams, plans just like you, changes how you see every person who doesn’t look like you. It humanizes the refugee, the destitute, the wronged.
When Nye writes about the desolation of the landscape without kindness, I feel this in my gut. These are particularly contentious times when name calling and quarrelsome behavior is considered normal or at least the norm. What if, kindness accompanies each of us everywhere …before we speak, as we act, while we live.