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 mail letters and purchase 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 every where
like a shadow or a friend.
-Naomi Shihab Nye
Elaine Scarry writes:
“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” (p. 4)
“…to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt. (The doubt of the other persons, here as elsewhere, amplifies the suffering of those already in pain.)” (p. 7)
(My only beef with Ms. Scarry is the distinction she makes between mental and physical pain.)
The strangest thing may be how easy it is to even forget one’s own pain, to underestimate it in retrospect. As C.S. Lewis writes:
“People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.”
I want to not have this disbelief, this barrier between myself and my past, between myself and other people. I want to use my suffering to open and soften my heart, to make me more compassionate. Pain can do that – soften your edges, melt them. It can be like taking off a layer of callous.
Drop a line if you want the audiofile of the poem.