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.

Click the picture for the video or read the poem below.


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.

2 thoughts on “Kindness

  1. I think I understand the image in a wordless way. One time long ago I was driving thru a reservation near the place called Gu Vo in southern Arizona. Desolate landscape, made somehow more dreary by the presence of shabby human habitats. And after a mile more we came to an aging man face down near the tree by the road, lying motionless. I knew not what to do, but my companion, being more awake ad a woman, got out and went over to him, and at least saw that there seemed to be breathing. Then she knocked on the door of the closest building, a shack a quarter mile distant. Itself brave. And a younger woman answered, seeming surprised. And my friend told about the corpse-like person. And after a moment, the woman replied by asking if he smelled like he had been drinking. The poem seems to instruct us that we must be able to clearly imagine ourselves to be possibly in the half-dead person’s predicament. Seriously, with no pretense. Only then can we begin to unfold our social humanity. Not easy. 🙂


    • Thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughtful comment. Yes, I believe the poem speaks to us needing to see the end of all things, ourselives included, in order to truly feel the compassion that we and the world needs (especially now). All life in the physical is temporary, whether a flower or a stranger or ourselves. If we can truly feel that (hard at times, I agree), then what else is there to be but compassionate? Something to ponder.

      Liked by 1 person

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