Physical suffering alienates people in ways they never imagined possible; it erodes a sense of self, replacing certainties with fears. Those who have witnessed suffering (of any kind, really) know that if there is one gesture that can be offered as a mark of respect – it is silence.
But lately, all around me I’ve been watching people use the grief of others to make an exhibit of their own “sorrow”, consistently violating another’s privacy and ultimately, undermining the strength that those who suffer need to summon up on a daily basis to get on with their lives. Worse, this callous display is glorified as “grit”. Reprehensible prettifications of misery valourised for their “rawness” and consumed unthinkingly. Scavenging mistaken for activism. I’m no cynic but when people speak of “safe spaces”, I sometimes wonder if there are any left.
Luckily, for every narrative that manipulates and distorts, there is one which empowers and emboldens its readers. Some poems have become as essential to my well-being as a walk or a piece of music; they let the air rush into my lungs – I owe them so much. Here’s one now:
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 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 everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.