ON KINDNESS by Naomi Shihab Nye https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/kindness
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[a] “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Not many poems have a story behind them, but the one by Naomi Shihab Nye that you just heard does. In an interview with the radio host Krista Tippet, Nye recalled that the poem came to her years ago as the result of an incident in Colombia while she and her husband were on their honeymoon.
The two had planned to take three months to travel across South America, when at the end of their first week they were on a bus at the beginning of their journey and they were robbed of everything they had. Someone else who was on the bus with them, but who they didn’t know, was killed. He’s the Indian in the poem.
It was, as you can imagine, a terribly traumatizing event. The two, being young adults just starting to make their way in the world in a foreign country where they knew no one, were stunned, not knowing where to turn. As Nye puts it, “we didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything.” What should they do? Where should they go? Who should they talk to?
As Nye tells it they were just standing along the side of a road, when a man approached them. “I guess he could see the disarray in our faces,” she said. “He was simply kind and just looked at us. ‘What happened to you?’” he asked in Spanish. And they recounted their story.
“He looked so sad,” Nye recalled. And after listening for a while he said, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened.” And then he went on his way.
After a few minutes, Nye and her husband came up with a plan: he would hitch-hike back to a larger city and see if they could get their traveler’s checks reinstated – remember travel’s checks? Nye would stay somewhere and await his return.
So, off her husband headed, and Nye, feeling in a bit of a panic, sat down in a plaza, where, as she tells it, this poem came to her: “before you know what kindness really is you must lose things . . . .”
Does this resonate with you? Who of us hasn’t had the experience where the simple gesture of a stranger made a difference in our lives?
It’s a story that echoes much of what we hear in the Good Samaritan story from the Gospel of Luke that James read earlier. It’s interesting, though, to reflect on some of the ways that Nye’s experience differs from the Lukan story.
For example, we have in Nye’s story no parade of functionaries of high station passing by, though it’s a good bet that the man who stopped and talked with the couple was not the first who passed them. His stopping was certainly notable to Nye and her husband.
But also in the Good Samaritan story Jesus takes note of all these wonderful things that the passing Samaritan did for the poor beleaguered robbery victim that he found by the side of the road: he bandaged the man’s wounds and poured oil and wine on them. Then he placed the man on his own animal, likely a donkey or some such, brought him to an inn and cared for him for a day, and then the next day went to the innkeeper and gave him money and said, “Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Wow! What a guy, right? I mean, talk about hospitality. I don’t think there’s a soul who doesn’t come away from that story with a sense of deep admiration. And . . . perhaps also a twinge of guilt. Because, after all, most of us have had occasion to do another person a good turn in one way or another, but there are few whose “neighborliness,” which is what this parable addresses, has been quite so bounteous. Yeah, we did well, but did we do all we could have? Do we measure up to this kind of standard?
I was surprised to discover a narrative something like that in myself in hearing Nye’s story of her encounter with the helpful man. I even printed out a transcript of her interview with Krista Tippet to double-check: OK, he said how sorry he was, uh-huh, and then he did what? Surely he must have done something more. Maybe he led them to a café and bought them a drink? Or directed them to a government office to get a new passport? Or . . .
No. After looking sad and saying how sorry he was, Nye says, he went on. That’s it. He left the picture. Huh!
And here’s the other interesting side of that interchange: at that moment, the man’s simple acknowledgement, Nye said, was all that she and her husband needed. And she remembered it as a moment of kindness.
She didn’t need him turning himself inside out to make everything right for them, because nobody could do that. It was going to take some work to set things right. But meanwhile to know that someone recognized their humanity and offered his sympathies made all the difference.
In hearing the Good Samaritan story it’s easy to get caught up in all that the Samaritan did to help the man – to be honest, I suspect that Jesus laid it on a bit thick so no one would mistake his message. But the truly revolutionary part was this brief passage: “and when he saw the man he was moved with pity.” Confronted with a stranger, a foreigner no less, the man didn’t avert his eyes or shrink from him. He listened to his heart and had pity.
In the rest of that interview with Krista Tippet, I learned something interesting about Nye. The daughter of a Palestinian man and an American woman of German heritage, she had grown up in, of all places, Ferguson, Missouri. In the time of her childhood, Nye said, Ferguson was a sleepy little bedroom community for St. Louis, a place of big trees where kids rode their bikes all over the place and everyone felt safe. To think of it now as a place, in her words, “representing injustice” in the imaginations of many Americans is shocking, she said.
It was also a place, she wrote elsewhere, where her father, an Arab, ran for the school board and won, and she got a summer job picking berries alongside black boys. But with the school desegregation battles of the late 1960s blacks were marginalized and separated from whites.
And in time tensions in that community led to an incident in August 2014 when a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot to death an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown Jr., accused of stealing a box of cigars from a convenience store. So much of what surrounded that incident was terrible and tragic, but perhaps nothing speaks more powerfully to how Michael Brown’s humanity was dismissed than the fact that his dead body lay on the pavement of Canfield Drive for four hours before it was retrieved.
It sounds almost like a mockery to call such an act “unkind.” But perhaps less so if we understand kindness in the context of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem and the parable of the Good Samaritan as the first and most basic act of recognizing another’s humanity.
Kindness is not fixing everything and making it right. It is looking directly into the eyes of another and seeing their worth and value as a sibling on this earth, seeing another as akin to oneself. It is, heaven help us, looking at the terribly brutalized body of another and showing respect, at the very least saying, “I am very sorry. I am very, very sorry that this happened.”
Back over this past Valentine’s Day, Debbie and I took a trip to Atlanta. We used it as a time to do the tourist kind of things, trips to museums, historical sites and the like. Among the sights we saw in the complex of museums celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was the church where King’s father and then King himself were pastors. The building has long since been converted to a museum and the congregation now worships at an immense new building across the street.
In the sanctuary, the museum was playing a recording of King speaking. On entering I sat and listened for a while, wondering if I’d recognize which sermon it was. Before long I did. It was the last sermon that Martin Luther King ever gave, the day before he was shot to death.
It was a tempestuous night in Memphis, kind of like the crazy weather we’ve had here this week, when King delivered the sermon in April 1968. He had come to march in support of striking sanitation workers, but had planned to have his lieutenants handle the rally planned that night at a local church. Word came, though, that the crowd begged form him to come. So, he went and, off the top of his head, preached on one of the most powerful sermons of his life, based some of his favorite personal stories and Bible verses – among them that of the Good Samaritan.
In the sermon, King recalled a trip that he and his wife, Coretta, took to Israel years before, when they rented a car that took them on the road from Jerico to Jerusalem, where the Good Samaritan story is set.
It is, he said, “a wild meandering road . . . really conducive to ambushing.” So, he could understand how the priest and the Levite in the story could have been wary of stopping to help the man beset by thieves. As they considered, King said, the first question in their minds likely was “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But, he said, “then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” It certainly could put him at risk, he said, but it was part of what he called “a dangerous unselfishness” to which the Samaritan was called.
King offered this parable as reason to stand with the striking sanitation workers, but later he expanded his theme in the kinds of words he’d never used before, saying he was unsure how long he would live, that he’d been told of threats from, in his words, “some of our sick white brothers.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, “but it really doesn’t matter now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
How do you know if you’ve been to the mountaintop? I don’t believe that King is referring to some kind of moment of ecstasy here. Instead, I think he meant an experience of affinity with another so deep, so thorough that it washes over you and makes you forget your own mean ego.
It is a moment something like what Naomi Shihbab Nye describes when she says you must look upon others who are suffering and know it could be you.
And so, she says, “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 can see the size of the cloth. Then, it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
I often think that what keeps us from the acts of kindness to which our hearts call us is not just the risk they can entail but also a fear of embracing the sorrow that is woven with them. In extending kindness to another we make ourselves vulnerable to sorrow and loss and disappointment.
It can be scary, it’s true, but that’s part of what communities like ours exist to do, to encourage each other to take a risk, to experience “a dangerous unselfishness,” and see that, as King put it, our fears, our misgivings really don’t matter because we’ve had a glimpse of living where our hearts are undivided from our deeds, and it is good. It may not be life eternal, as the Biblical parable promises, but it surely is the experience of life abundant: life fulfilling and undivided, centered in courage and compassion.
Still, though, we demur: that’s fine for others, but not me. I’m not up to that. And yet, reflect: if taking a few minutes to walk down the street and write a few words in chalk on a sidewalk can do this, what more are we capable of achieving? How else might we reach out so as to give others hope and assurance?
Behind that fearful demeanor that we adopt is a rich abundance of wisdom, hope, compassion that are ready to be mined. And kindness, I want to argue, is the shovel or maybe sometimes the jack hammer that we need to open it up. And it is worth it. It is worth taking the chance of encountering sorrow and pain because with even the smallest gesture of compassion sometimes we can make a difference in the lives of others and our own, that we may be filled with loving kindness and be peaceful, whole, and at ease.