Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy — a man of colossal compassion and blind spots — wrote whileas it neared its end. Practice kindness all day to everybody, and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac half-resolved, half-instructed an epoch later in a to his first wife and lifelong friend. Of course, even the best-intentioned of us are not capable of perpetual kindness or being our most elevated selves all day with everybody.
Discontinuous and self-contradictory, even under the safest and sanest circumstances, human beings are not wired for constancy of feeling, conduct, or selfhood. If you have not watched yourself, helpless and horrified, transform into an ill-tempered child with a loved one or the unsuspectingthe produce aisle with his basket of bok choy, you have not lived. When the world grows unsafe, when life charges at us with its stresses and sorrows, our devotion to kindness can short-circuit with alarming ease. Yet, paradoxically, we often calibrate and supercharge our capacity for kindness in the laboratory of loss and uncertainty And it is always, as Kerouac intuited, a practice.
In 1978, drawing on a, Naomi Shihab Nye captured this problematic, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and an empathic wingspan that has since become a classic — a classic now part of Edward Hirsch’s finely curated anthology ( ); a classic reimagined in a lovely short film by illustrator and my friends at the :
by Naomi Shihab Nye
what kindness is
it would help if you lost things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you ,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you
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 forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
it would help if you traveled in a white poncho
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.
you must .
It would help if you woke up with sorrow.
You 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 service that ties your shoes
and and purchase bread,
only heart that raises its head
from the crowd of the
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Complement with a fascinating cultural history of, Jacqueline Woodson’s letter to children about empathy, and George Sand’s — a poignant parable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and fear — then revisit other soul-broadening animated poems: by Marie Howe, by Linda France, and by Wendell Berry.