“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy — a man of colossal compassion and colossal blind spots — wrote while reckoning with his life as it neared its end.
“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac half-resolved, half-instructed an epoch later in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend.
Of course, even the best-intentioned of us are not capable of perpetual kindness, not capable of being our most elevated selves all day with everybody. If you have not watched yourself, helpless and horrified, transform into an ill-tempered child with a loved one or the unsuspecting man blocking the produce aisle with his basket of bok choy, you have not lived. Discontinuous and self-contradictory even under the safest and sanest of circumstances, human beings are not wired for constancy of feeling, of conduct, of selfhood. When the world grows unsafe, when life charges at us with its stresses and its sorrows, our devotion to kindness can short-circuit with alarming ease. And yet, paradoxically, it is often in the laboratory of loss and uncertainty that we calibrate and supercharge our capacity for kindness. And it is always, as Kerouac intuited, a practice.
In 1978, drawing on a jarring real-life experience, Naomi Shihab Nye captured this difficult, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and empathic wingspan that has since become a classic — a classic now part of Edward Hirsch’s finely curated anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart (public library); a classic reimagined in a lovely short film by illustrator Ana Pérez López and my friends at the On Being Project:
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 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.
Complement with a fascinating cultural history of how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, Jacqueline Woodson’s letter to children about how we learn kindness, and George Sand’s only children’s book — a poignant parable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and fear — then revisit other soul-broadening animated poems: “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “Murmuration” by Linda France, and “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.