In this video, recorded at the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, Palestinian American poet, writer, teacher Naomi Shihab Nye (1952) shares how she wrote one of her favorite poems, Kindness, and then reads it. It came to her, mysteriously, after a dramatic situation, in which she and her husband were robbed during their honeymoon while traveling by bus in South America. When she sat down to write, she said it just came to her. “I actually was the secretary for Kindness.”
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.
From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.
Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Kim Rosen interviewed Naomi for Spirituality&Health. In it, she shared more details about that incident, which took place in Columbia in 1978. She also spoke about the power of poetry to transform lives. We want another kind of story, she said, one that helps us feel connected with one another. She feels good poems can harmonize and refocus us, create empathy, more understanding, and lead to more peace in the world.*
The ending to this poem reminds me in a way of the theme of Derek Walcott’s poem, Love after Love, when you recognize your essential nature, as if for the first time. Love and Kindness are interchangeable, where being kind to yourself is loving yourself, the basis for loving others.
Also see So Much Happiness, from the same volume of poetry. In the accompanying video, Naomi Shihab Nye reads both poems.