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.
–Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye from Words Under the Words
We have been a people devoid of empathy for quite some time. We think the small digital windows in which we glance into one another’s lives tells a full story or that the stereotypes we’ve been fed can be a full meal of knowledge. A crisis of empathy is a crisis of moral imagination. When we fail to imagine what it might be like to live with another person’s struggles, we fail to imagine how God might be showing up in all of creation–everywhere, to everyone.
We are in the midst of a shift of imagination. Yes, there is hoarding and fear. But there is also an ability to imagine what this crisis might be like for the poor, for service industry workers, for the elderly and the young parent, for workers and caretakers, for those who could be carriers and those who are immunocompromised.
As Nye poem reminds me, kindness comes from the ability to empathize, “to see how this could be you.” From the deep sorrow of imagining not our own suffering but another’s suffering we can cultivate kindness. Let your holy imagination run wild with the possibility of caring for one another, let it run wild with the capacity for kindness.
To Find a Steady Center is a daily poem and meditation to offer a short, good word to those who are anxious, fearful or lonely and who might need a gentle word of hope, encouragement or perspective during social distancing.