October 24, 2021

How This Poem by Naomi Shihab Nye Teaches us what Kindness Really Means.


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The poem, Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye taught me that we have to lose things, look at those who deserved kindness but were left aside, and feel the sorrow, bittersweet feelings of life to really understand what kindness is.

We have to experience hardship. We have to feel the unkind in the world to know the kind. We have to know others’ suffering. We have to feel it all. Because without truly knowing what unkindness looks like, we do not appreciate it fully.

Kindness is something that we are meant to give, but in a world clouded with injustice, traumas, losses, it can be hard to find. Instead of letting the world harden our hearts, we must open it more because we, too, have known suffering. We must find common humanity with those who’ve experienced grave injustice, like the example of the Indian dead on the side of the road that we just walk over. We must stop just walking over those who were left to die. We must honor their life and take them with us. We must remember what really matters in order to let the kindness in.

Only then can we be truly kind. It’s because of life experience that we come to value kindness the most. We have to walk in another’s shoes, go the extra mile for someone, and see from another’s perspective if we want to have true empathy. In kindness, there is care for others, but real kindness is the empathy where we feel what they feel. We know what they know. We hold space for them. We truly see them—and in seeing them, we see ourselves.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,

The poem talks about losing things in order to truly know what kindness is. That’s to say that when you lose your way, you hold onto anything good. For example, holocaust survivors have said when they were in concentration camps that they would dream all day about what they would do if they got out.

They would think of the kindnesses they found such as the people who hid the Jews and all the food they would eat. In the midst of being treated inhumanely, this helped them to maintain their humanity. In a place where people fought for food and warmth and light, they held onto the memories of kindness and still dreamt of a better life.

This is one example of how the darkness doesn’t always fully consume us. We become the light. We hold on because we know the dark, because we know there is something better, because we remember the goodness. Because we are not alone in our humanity. We share our suffering with others, with the world, and out from it comes empathy, consideration, and kindness even in instances where all seems lost.

Another part of the poem continues discussing the important of empathy,

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.

~ Naomi Shihab Nye

For the full poem, go here.

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