On Kindness

May 3, 2018

noun - kind·ness \ ˈkīn(d)-nəs \

What is kindness? How do we know it when we see it? And why is it important?

The most obvious answer is that kindness is general "niceness" and "courteousness". When someone gives their seat up on the bus to someone who obviously has difficulty standing, we recognize this as a kind act. When a person chooses to remain silent rather than correct another person and embarrass them publicly, we might say that the person is being kind.
But there is a deeper meaning to this rather common phrase.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written a beautiful poem which might be considered an essential primer on 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 every where
like a shadow or a friend.

To truly know kindness, we must first know desolation, loss, fear, and - most essential - abandonment. Kindness, far from being mere niceness or social courtesy, is the state of noticing - seeing - another human soul and reaching out beyond the self and into their lives. Kindness is the messy act of fearlessly entering the story of another and putting our own lives at risk for the sake of their future flourishing. Kindness is a quality we can only embody after being alive in the world having been unexpectedly rescued from the depths of despair. And, given the sheer breadth of our own despair and malaise in this cut-throat and competitive world, kindness, it would seem, is our best and only way forward.

So let us be kind to one another this day and every day thereafter.

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