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,
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.