Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside…
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye (Colombia)
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.
Despite everything that common sense would say, the father loaded up his weekend yacht with life vests and set off for the seas of World War II, with the hope of bringing home as many stranded soldiers as possible. His son, however, was not amongst them — anymore — gunned down only 3 weeks into the war.
After a long mission, the fighter pilot only had enough fuel remaining to return to his home base. And yet, he knew that bomber appearing in his mirror was heading straight towards their rescue ship, and so he turned around, knowing it would cost him his life. But with the potential of saving someone else’s.
In the cinema, it’s hard to process the weight the world has historically put on us: the mass killings and slaughter, the way life becomes just numbers, and people — actual human beings — become just chess pieces. It’s hard to process, but we try.
In real life, it’s even harder: 53 drown off the coast of Yemen, 12 killed in a blast in Quetta, 400,000 deaths in Syrian war. It’s even hard to process, and we often don’t try.
And yet, for those who are carrying this weight most directly — like the father on the yacht and the fighter pilot — perhaps this weight is what leads to bravery, to action, and ultimately, to kindness.
70 years ago, millions of people migrated between liberated-India and the newly formed Pakistan. And tragically, hundreds of thousands / millions of people were killed along the way. A gentleman who was alive in that time told me how kind Pakistan was for years or decades after this tragedy. How we shared food with Christian neighbors, attended Hindu weddings, protected Sikh’s rights to worships. It seemed, for a time, that we were kinder back then.
And occasionally that kindness returns: after the Peshawar school attack, the Lahore DHA Z-block blast, Edhi sb’s passing. But it seems like that kindness is slowly (or quickly) lost. Or, at least I know that I lose it.
Why? And how can it be different?
Why is it that I get angry every time someone cuts me off on Main Boulevard? Could they not be rushing to the hospital to see a loved one, or just not educated enough to know better? Why is it that I get frustrated when someone on the street taps my window for money? Is this certainly not the very last resort in a life filled with pain? Why am I unable to understand when a waiter seems rude or unpleasant? Could they not be suffering from depression, or dengue, or a family death?
How is it that life is able to break us apart / open us to the world at a moment’s time, but also able to harden us over time? Why and how do we allow it to harden us?
Is it true that before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing?
And is it possible that we can stay broken — in that sorrow or shadow — so that we have space for kindness to fill the cracks and gaps? So that only kindness makes sense anymore.