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
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
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.
Naomi Shihab Nye
A friend posted this poem on Facebook this morning. It is one of my favorites, though I had not thought of it in a while. But this morning, it was just what I needed to read. The past week has been hard, hasn’t it? In spite of all the fear that the bombs set off at the Boston Marathon engendered, in spite of all the talking heads going on and on about terrorism, in spite of all the political grandstanding some managed to wrangle out of this tragedy, all I could really think about were the four families in Boston who had loved ones who were taken from them suddenly, unexpectedly, violently, whose loved ones would never return home again. It was only more poignant when news reports began to talk about the delegation from Newtown, Connecticut who had come to either run in or watch the marathon—those watching were in VIP bleachers at the finish line, just across from the bomb blasts. Here they were, watching their townsfolk who had come to run in honor and memory of the children and teachers who died in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School—too suddenly, too violently, too unexpectedly, too young, and without warning, they were caught up in another act of senseless violence; or the wife running in memory of her husband, killed a few months ago by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, suddenly caught up in another act of violence; or the television reporter, speaking from the midst of the carnage, who happened to be married to a man whose first wife died when the plane she was riding on was flown into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Echoes of grief, reverberating all around this scene of fresh pain and sorrow. And not long after the bombs went off in Boston, a small town in Texas experienced the sudden grief of an explosion at a fertilizer plant, leveling homes and businesses, taking lives and injuring others. More sorrow. Reports from Syria of mass killings by government forces and the millions of refugees flooding across the borders in search of safety. And then, at the end of the week, an earthquake in southern China, resulting in more sudden, unexpected, violent deaths.
Many of us know this feeling. Perhaps our own losses have not been as public, as sensational. Perhaps our losses have been quieter, more personal. But many of us know this feeling—of death that comes too suddenly, too violently, too unexpectedly, to those who are too young—this kind of sudden death that steals the future we had planned. It made me think of a quote by The Rev. William Sloane Coffin in a sermon he preached a couple of weeks after his 24-year-old son Alex’s death in a car accident. He said: “God is dead set against all unnatural deaths…When parents die, as my did my mother last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head held high, instead of—as we must—marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.” That is what I was reminded of as news reports flooded my television screen, how all of us know something about being a part of “the world’s army of the bereaved.” At a certain point in this past week, I just kind of had to shut it down—I couldn’t take in any more of the sadness. The sorrow of it all was too heavy. I could not figure out how to respond, what to do, what response to make.
And then, this poem appeared this morning, and suddenly, I remembered. If you have ever had this kind of sorrow come in and make its home with you for a while…or for a lifetime…you will know the truth of this poem. Because the truth is simply that the only response we can ever make in the face of such pain, such grief, such sorrow and loss is this: Kindness; Love. It is the only response that has ever healed any of us in the midst of our own experiences of grief and sorrow—the kindness and love of others who came to comfort us, to sit quietly with us, to listen to us, to weep with us; the ones who have brought food and flowers and drink—the stuff of beauty and life; the ones who have poured hope into us when our hope was faltering; who have prayed the prayers of faith for us when our faith was shaken; the ones who have loved us through the valley of the shadow until we emerged back into the light.
So, in the wake of all the bad news in the past week, in the face of all the sorrow and fear, the anger and thirst for vengeance, the brokenness and pain, here is what I hope we will all do: I hope we will all be a little kinder to each other. I hope we will love each other a little more extravagantly. We do not have to go to Boston, or Newtown, or West, Texas or Syria or China to offer our kindness and love. There is plenty of pain and brokenness and need and sorrow next door to us, down the street, across the city, inside our own skin. We can simply be kinder and more loving right here. We can look for concrete ways to share kindness with others, to love others more deeply, even to be kinder and more loving to ourselves. For in the face of all the brokenness in our world and in our own small, fragile little lives, it is only kindness that makes any sense. It is only kindness and love that will heal, that will redeem, that will give life. I’m going to try to be kinder in the days ahead. I’m going to try to love more extravagantly. Would you like to join me? Who knows what might happen if we all just give it a try?