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,” by Naomi Shihab Nye)
As do many who know it (and many do), I cherish this poem– one of the poems which continues to deeply, directly, even intimately in-form me as I meet the challenges of live and love.
But what I want to write about here is not so much “kindness” itself (the poem does that, and beautifully), but about how writing (and reading) poems is such a powerful way to take what we suffer —what we think and feel and lose and grieve and love and celebrate— and take ourselves somewhere by giving these things shape and form with words.
Truly, poetry (along with movement and music) is one of the most powerful mental health tools I know.
I have been thinking about this again as we enter poetry month (every April!), and of the words and the poetry specifically of poet and teacher, Naomi Shihab Nye. In an interview a couple of years ago with Krista Tippett (on the wonderful radio program, On Being) Naomi spoke beautifully about exactly that, with a story about how the poem above came to be in her own life. So I’m just going to let Naomi do the talking from here, from a transcript of that July 28, 2016 interview:
One thing I’ve tried to say to groups over the years, groups of all ages, is that writing things down, whatever you’re writing down, even if you’re writing something sad or hard, usually you feel better after you do it. Somehow, you’re given a sense of, “OK, this mood, this sorrow I’m feeling, this trouble I’m in, I’ve given it shape. It’s got a shape on the page now. So I can stand back, I can look at it, I can think about it a little differently. What do I do now?” And very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse.
They always say, “I wrote things down. This isn’t quite finished. I need to work on it.” But they agree that it helped them sort of see their experience, see what they were living. And that’s definitely a gift of writing […] It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.
She then tells about the experience that resulted in the “Kindness” poem:
My husband and I were on our honeymoon. We had just gotten married one week before […] And we had this plan to travel in South America for three months. And at the end of our first week, we were robbed of everything. And someone else who was on the bus with us was killed, and he’s the Indian in the poem. And it was quite a shake-up of an experience. And what do you do now? We didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything. What do we do first? Where do we go? Who do we talk to? And a man came up to us on the street and was simply kind and just looked at us, I guess could see our disarray in our faces.
And just asked us in Spanish, “What happened to you?” And we tried to tell him. And he listened to us, and he looked so sad. And he said, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened,” in Spanish. And he went on. And then we went to this little plaza, and I sat down, and all I had was the notebook in my back pocket and pencil. And my husband was going to hitchhike off to Cali, a larger city, to see about getting traveler’s checks reinstated. Remember those archaic things?
And so this was also a little worrisome to us because, suddenly, we were going to split up. I was going to stay here, and he was going to go there. And as I sat there alone, in a bit of a panic, night coming on, trying to figure out what I was going to do next, this voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me, spoke it. And I wrote it down.
It helped her through the moment, as a stranded 20-something woman, writing things down…but it did so much more: it made her heart larger, and her compassion deeper, in the way that can only happen when we lose all the strategies (money, privilege, judgement, distraction) we use to insulate ourselves from the felt-knowledge that this could be you. But that transformation and deepening can perhaps only happen when we also pause and pay attention to that experience; when we listen to our suffering through language (which could as well be the language of paint or of music, or another), instead trying to get away from it, till [y]our voice/ catches the thread of all sorrows/ and you see the size of the cloth. It is a state of being that poet Kaveh Akbar has called a kind of “permeability to wonder,” which is also the door to joy .
To listen to the complete podcast of Krista Tippett’s interview with Naomi Shihab Nye, click here )
Then go write something down.