One Another's Lives

Excerpt from "The Incomparable Naomi Shihab Nye on Kindness," Spirituality & Health, July-August 2012: 

Poetry helps us imagine one another's lives. It gives us intimate insights into someone else's experience. To be able to have that kind of insight in thirty seconds or three minutes is a very precious kind of transmission. It's not cluttered with a lot of extraneous, explanatory matter or the kind of chatter that comes so easily on the news these days. We're surrounded by talk and language and reporting and stories of a certain kind, the “breaking news” kind, but... 

I think we hunger for another kind of story, the story that helps us just feel connected with one another, be with one another. A slower kind of empathy. I think we hunger for that now more than ever.

Once we have the experience of absorbing a poem and feeling that appetite satisfied, then we have access to a language that is devoted to transporting the spirit. Just as there is something inside a compass that causes it to always return to true North, so there is something in poetry that can harmonize and refocus us.

You just need one poem and the right attention for that poem. You read that poem, you hold it in you, you reread it, and you feel like a room that is cleansed and freshened and rearranged, where everything is folded and put away in its proper place. Not all poems are this way, of course; certainly some poems are filled with their own kind of clutter. But to find a poem that harmonizes you, to feel that clarity and know it's there, it's available for you and anytime you feel overwhelmed -- wow. What could be better?

"Kindness" 
by Naomi Shihab Nye, from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

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.