I do not know where I first read this or who wrote it. But it has always stuck with me, so I share it with you now.
The Wise Woman and The Stone
A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food.
The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman if she could give it to him. She did so without hesitatin. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Please give me what you had within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
We stand on the shore of a large lake. Each of us dives into the lake and, for a brief moment, submerge ourselves in the waters of mother Earth. We reemerge back onto the shore and turn to see the ripples we have created that will remain long after we have left.
Someone once asked Gandhi what his life message was. He answered that his life was his message.
No matter who we are, we all have an impact on the world around us that will remain long after we are gone, sometimes for generations.
Some words and actions can wound for generations. Some can be so searing that they carve a new trajectory into a family’s destiny. Others can heal. The message of our lives is how we live in our mundane days.
Perhaps one has stripped the cultural blinders off and lived against the grain. Maybe teaching that the Creator, God, Gaia, whatever name one calls the breath of life, is not found in some distant, off-planet place of the gods. It is found everywhere on Earth. It is heard in birdsongs, felt in the roots of the trees communicating under our feet, seen in the fearful eyes of animals whom we have excluded from our circle of compassion.
These people have the challenging task of carving out a new future, and many are doing this now in ways both large and small. And how might a deep dive into the collective human shadow and reemergence into the light change one’s destiny? And change the fate of this planet?
We can pray to our ancestors for wisdom and thank them for their lessons, but we must remember that we who are alive today will soon be the ancestors. And when those not yet born stand in the ripples of our lives, what will they say to us?
It is not an easy or trivial thing to be the caregivers of the Earth.
To live in this world of mundane chores; to live when the wash still needs washing, the plant still needs watering, the cat still needs to be fed. To live still, and my friend is gone away to whatever awaits us all.
You, who will live in our future, will never know her. Nor will you know anyone whom I know or even that we had existed. Not as individuals at least.
There is impermanence everywhere in this reality, whether a flower or a family member. It is omnipresent. It is life itself. There is something that the death of my friend, my favorite dog, my mother, and my neighbor’s oak tree has taught me. It is that to truly appreciate life on this Earth, we must also hold within ourselves its coming death.
We should love this Earth and everything on it with the passion and urgency of one who sees the end.
If we live in the embrace of knowing that someday at a time in which we have no clue or control, this tree, this friend, this fractal of divine light will extinguish, perhaps we would better understand the depth of the gift. I do not mean to intellectually understand that death is coming. Of course, in those moments when we allow our minds to stumble upon the thought, we comprehend that death is a real thing. But usually, the thought is banished from our minds, and we live as if the gifts on this Earth will never be depleted. However, something even deeper is missing in this mental void of ours. We are missing the miracle in the mundane.
Perhaps had we understood all of this, as the indigenous and our ancient ancestors had understood it, things would have turned out different for the natural world and for you, who must learn to live in the wake of our lives.
When I first heard this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, I viscerally felt the truth of it in my body. The truth I felt is that great suffering is the door through which kindness enters and becomes the only thing that makes sense in this world. Kindness to each other, the earth, animals, every living thing.
The one line that stopped my eyes on the page, and that I kept going back to over and over again is the line about the Indian in a white poncho being dead on the side of the road. I thought, why this line in such a beautiful poem? What does this mean?
Even though we walk through life thinking we have time, things like this won’t happen to me, I must admit to myself, that really, it can all be over in an instant. This man on the side of the road could be any of us on any given day. So what matters most in this transitory world? Where life ebbs and flows, in and out of existence? I wonder if Naomi Shihab Nye might have found the answer.
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,