Kindness (Naomi Shihab Nye)

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Kindness (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 every where

like a shadow or a friend.

by Naomi Shihab Nye
illustration by Corrie Haffly

There is so much unkindness. So much selfishness in the world. And sometimes, in stark contrast, we see hands of kindness. Our church has been praying for and trying to think of ways to show kindness to Syrian refugees half way across the world, and yet still our brothers and sisters (these images of Syrian refugee children sleeping , for example). When Corrie suggested drawing Syrian refugees for this poem, I knew immediately it was perfect.

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2 thoughts on “Kindness (Naomi Shihab Nye)”

  1. I first heard this poem a couple of years ago when a member of my writing group brought it to one of our meetings read aloud. But my friend had a bone to pick with it: she didn’t like the line about how the dead Indian “could be you.” She said it didn’t matter whether it could be YOU, what mattered was that (as the poem goes on to say) “he too was someone/ who journeyed through the night with plans/ and the simple breath that kept him alive.” I thought that was a really interesting point, and I wonder if the poem would ring truer if that line were omitted. Who knows? Anyway, it is a wonderful poem, isn’t it? I love the last lines about kindness picking us out of a crowd and going with us like a shadow or a friend.

    1. I don’t feel at all able to critique (or even more, improve on!) poetry, but I can see the value in the “could be you” line… in as much as so much compassion starts with the acknowledgement “there but for the grace of God, go I”.

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