Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Before You Know What Kindness Really Is

--by Naomi Shihab Nye (Apr 19, 2011)

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, from The Words Under the Words

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On Apr 16, 2011 Prasad Kaipa wrote:

 some parts of the poem resonated more than others for me. It is easier to be kind when have everything and share some of it with kindness. But when I have nothing and seek something myself, to be kind to others and give half of it or all of it, that is transformational. Interestingly though, I found poor give away bigger percentage of their wealth and are more kind to others who need what they need.

Recently, i have been experiencing a lot of kindness and compassion from others. It feels like when I am ready to receive, my heart opens to seeing others who are kind. Most of my life it was all about my kindness but recent experience makes me believe that I was so blind and self centered and did not have a clue what kindness really meant. I had conceptual and intellectual understanding but till I became empty and open to learning, listening and receiving Grace, what I had did not amount to much...

On Apr 16, 2011 Ravi Sheshadri wrote:

Dear Friends,

For me kindness means

- a way to share what you have with less fortunate ones - for example I am better placed financially so I make my childrens cloths available to the children of barber, cobbler. The clothes are perfect, but my children have had new clothes to wear

- a way to share your time with the person who has come to you for getting a solution for his life. Hearing him intently and helping him through whatever you can, is kindness

- a way to decrease the load of life. By s miling at the other person we can do this. I do it when i go for my morning walk. I believe in a theory that by my smiling at the person, I can surely improve his day. There is no compulsion on me to do this. But i still do without much ego and funfare as a duty,as a good citizen. This is kindness.

With love and regards

Ravi Sheshadri

On Apr 17, 2011 Edit Lak wrote:

This was an interesting article... I felt the journey of Naomi Shihab Nye.

And, I had an insight into her understandings, perspective and interpretations of ‘a’ kindness.

But, I did not feel the kindness, the actual ‘kindness’  
I felt the struggle of hardness to experience a ‘perceived’ life’s kindness lesson.
In Nye’s viewpoint, this reflected the duality of the struggle to accept, and feel, ‘self’ kindness.
An expectation, or a stigma put on ‘kindness’ So one must feel the sorrow of life before a kindness comes into the picture, Or can be had, Or can be felt, or given...   Hmm - Interesting
But.. Is this really how we know kindness?  
No, I don’t believe so.. 
I do see that life and life’s journeys teaches us some form of kindness.. But, I would think;
Kindness itself comes from the ‘self’, from the heart, from that selfless, thinkless place that doesn’t question anything, and doest want a reward for any kind action. Or for anything else for that matter really..
Kindness given and kindness got,comes from the pure, unthinking part or of the body and mind, that’s working together with ‘each other’ in true ‘love’, without any expectations.

On Apr 17, 2011 nisha wrote:

In every day life, i feel kindness  when I can say "it's alright"  to things that my gut response says are not alright .

On Apr 17, 2011 Conrad P. Pritscher wrote:



Thanks for the opportunity to respond to this kind article and the many other words on kindness from charity focus and daily good. I have a long file about kindness and I believe it is made me a bit kinder since I began keeping the file motivated by charity focus. This Talmud says: "Kindness is the highest form of wisdom." To paraphrase Gandhi, there is no way to kindness, kindness is the way. I hope the following isn’t too long but I had so many great quotes on kindness that I had trouble selecting. Most of  these quotes came from charity focus  and daily good. For all those involved with charity focus in daily good, you my deep gratitude.

Warm and kind regards,

Conrad P Pritscher



Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns.

- Author Unknown


Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley who said: "It's a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'Try to be a little kinder.
Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness. –Seneca
The truest greatness lies in being kind, the truest wisdom in a happy mind. --Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. --Dalai Lama
The best portion of a good man's life is his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love. --William Wordsworth
Kindness in words creates confidence.
Kindness in thinking creates profundity.
Kindness in giving creates love. --Lao Tsu
Mohandas Ghandi said: “All we need is to be kind.”
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. --Philo
A kind heart is a fountain of gladness, making everything in its vicinity freshen into smiles. --Washington Irving
I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness. --Mother Teresa
A warm smile is the universal language of kindness. --William Arthur Ward
“ My religion is kindness.” Dalai Llama
Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. --Henry James
 Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Theodore Rubin “ Kindness is more important than wisdom, and when you realize that it is the beginning of wisdom.
A kind heart is a fountain of gladness, making everything in its vicinity freshen into smiles. –Washington Irving
“ My religion is kindness.” Dalai Llama
Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. --Henry James
Theodore Rubin “ Kindness is more important than wisdom, and when you realize that it is the beginning of wisdom.
To err on the side of kindness is seldom an error.  ~Liz Armbruster, on

The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.  ~Charles Kuralt, On the Road With Charles Kuralt

How beautiful a day can be
When kindness touches it!
~George Elliston

On Apr 17, 2011 Xiaoshan wrote:

A dying man’s words are kind.“ - Chinese proverb

On Apr 18, 2011 Ricky wrote:

As I read and reread the passage, I am struck by the similarity between what I experience as an overwhelming sense of gratitude and this poetic experiential definition of kindness.  Both are expressed with an open heart.  Both give us pause to remember that right action transcends time.  Both can be exercised as a profoundly positive extension of our deeply personal 'story'.  Both are extraordinary expressions of the deepest truth we can know...that everything is love. 

On Apr 18, 2011 Kinjal wrote:

Beautiful poem and a strong message driving me to really take a step back and read those line aloud again in order to feel all those moments when kindness arose in the weakest moments of my life; when I felt I did not have anything left in me, I felt the kindness inside me that helped me help others and myself. I find strength and hope in being kind  when I am just about to give up. The lines that stuck with me:

how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

On Apr 18, 2011 Somik Raha wrote:

On the interplay of kindness and sorrow, the story that has inspired me the most comes from India's ancient epic, "The Mahabharata." A powerful emperor decided to give away his wealth to his citizens in the largest giving ceremonies of those times. In his court, everyone was astonished at how much he gave away, leading some to declare that this was the greatest giving that mankind had witnessed.

"Pooh!" came a voice. As everyone turned to look, it was that of a squirrel, who spoke cynically, "Hah! This is not the greatest giving at all." The squirrel had a body that was half golden and half brown. The angry courtiers asked the squirrel to explain himself.

The squirrel then told his story. "There lived a teacher in a village, who had been unable to get alms for many days. One day, he finally managed to get a little rice and rushed home delighted. He told his wife to make a meal that they would enjoy with their children, after having starved for many days. Just when they were about to begin their meal, there was a knock on the door, and a hungry traveler asked for a meal. Immediately, this teacher welcomed the traveler, and gave the family's entire meal which the traveler hungrily consumed, leaving nothing for his hosts. That night, the entire family perished of hunger. I was in their kitchen, and one morsel of rice that lay on the floor touched my body, immediately burning it to a golden color. Since then, I have been searching for another great giving so that the other half of my body may also turn to gold, but I have been unsuccessful in finding such a giving." 

Whenever I feel generosity is wanting in me, that teacher greatly inspires me to take one more step.

On Apr 19, 2011 Deborah wrote:

 When I substitute the word 'grace' for ' kindness' then the poem takes on a deeper significance for me, and I understand more what kind of 'kindness' Naomi is talking about.

On Apr 19, 2011 Manisha wrote:

It is synronicity/serendepity that I read this poem today. Today, I was wondering how it would be to feel wise after going through life with ups and downs. I know conceptualty, it is to remind kind/graceful/smiling/accepting instead of feeling cynical and bitter. This poem does a great job in showing the positive and wise emotions that come out of setbacks. I know life has setbacks, and if we can have positive emotions that arise instead of negative, its a much better option.

On Apr 19, 2011 Melissa wrote:

This is simple and wise. Thanks for sharing this lovely poem!

On Apr 19, 2011 rahul wrote:

This passage was about attention for me: that to know kindness requires tuning into the constancy of the gifts that sustain us.  The challenge with constancy is that its so easy to take that flow for granted and lose gratitude for the kindness which continually charges us up.  Hence to know kindness, the author says we must go to the extreme end where its flow is nearly choked off such that even the smallest trickle gives rise to an abundant gratitude which ultimately transforms how we live.  There is truth in this, but also think there's a golden middle path that's found in fully accepting the challenges life throws at us.  Many examples of this: if somehow you don't get a meal or two, be with your hunger and watch how it changes all your lenses; if a car or train isn't available, let your muscles strain on the long journey home by foot or bicycle; if you feel ignored, embrace your fundamental aloneness past the point of discomfort; and through all of these things you will taste food, and sip time, and respect space, and honor love like never before.

On Apr 19, 2011 Tristan wrote:

Really touched me, thanks

On Apr 19, 2011 stephen Mbuthia wrote:

I love this show,good work and keep it up..

On Apr 19, 2011 Kathryn wrote:

The part of the poem that referred to sorrow - I have experienced that sorrow. I lost my son, and the sorrow that sprang forth from my being was beyond anything that words can express. These words of Nye's capture it as best as anything:

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.

This cateclysmic event in my heart enabled me to become even more kind and compassionate than ever before. This poem is so powerful to me.


On Apr 20, 2011 JENNIFER POKUAA wrote:

likes to receive more of such good works

On Apr 21, 2011 raj wrote:

my coment is basicly only one of tyep person that like losser person is depriceated but he done that work after long time that time felling his person is well but dont fell praod why?

On Apr 21, 2011 Shariq wrote:

Greetings! This is a lovely poem, thank you for sharing it. I believe we feel kindness in its happening when our gentle nurturing presence comes alive in offering/receiving love during the moments of humility and oneness with the world. It reminds me of Parker Palmer's intuitive sense of kindness that resonates with my own sense that I am struggling to share here: "Š as winters turn into spring, I find it not only hard to cope with mud but also hard to credit the small harbingers of larger life to come, hard to hope until the outcome is secure. Spring teaches me to look more carefully for the green stems of possibility; for the intuitive hunch that may turn into a larger insight, for the glance or touch that may thaw a frozen relationship, for the stranger's act of kindness that makes the world seem hospitable again." (Source: Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation)

On Apr 21, 2011 Pavi wrote:

 Nye is a magician-poet. She turns words into wisdom. Gentle and sharp at the same time.

The first time I stumbled across this poem it prompted me to scribble this one:

Before you know gratitude really is
You must accumulate things, yes
Feel your possessions pile up in a moment
Like feather mattresses for a princess.
Walking, what you clutch in your hands
What you heave onto your back must
Grow unbearably heavy
Turning your footsteps towards

That place where thankfulness 
Becomes necessity and all
Burdens turn into butterflies
Rising in colorful clouds
From your shoulders.
in gratitude :)

On Apr 23, 2011 ~liz Sorensen Wessel wrote:

Nye's poem moved me deeply, yes...but to read such thoughtful, intellegent, heartfelt comments from readers enriched my experience and understanding immensely. A lovely gift of kindness. Thank you.

On Apr 23, 2011 susan wrote:

Ohmygoodness, I await the delivery of the weekly iJourney read with delightful anticipation! *giggle  With each delivery I am encouraged to think beyond myself and I am sweetly reminded of how beauty-full life is and can be with learning and living.  This weeks iJourney read, I am reminded of the engagement received at the Wednesday gatherings, the peaceful quiet of the Mehta family home and sharing of thoughts and feelings and ideas.

I felt those same blessings here the last couple visits to this iJourney post reading the thoughts and feelings of those that have shared here... I found the poem and poet to be as Pavi stated, "gentle and sharp at the same time" and reading through Katherine's and Manisha's experiences and then Somik's wisdom and connection to "The Mahabharata", I am beautifully nudged to open my heart further and my mind more to Ms. Nye's message.

Kindness, indeed awareness, can come with the experiences of a heavy load or the weight of responsibility.  These experiences can give way to understanding.  When the understanding is shared with another in empathy it becomes kindness.  This is how it is for me, too,  though additionally I would share that at best it is also in practicing kindness, or simple goodness for this matter, that the behavior will become habit and a part of my very person and further a part of my identity and my way of be-ing or the way that I am; I am kind.

I have deep and incredible gratitude for the many kindnesses shared with me, my family and those I love.  Though I am sure that there are many I have forgotten, there are so very many acts of kindness I summon to my thoughts and whilst doing so I give thanks and a prayer for these kindness givers.  Those that share a kindness with me inspire me to reciprocate within my world, and I do.  Kindness feels good.

So my thoughts on kindness are that in practicing kindness I become kind,  in recieving kindness I am energized to share kindness, and the gift of kindness and being kind increase my quotient of gratitude in living and loving. 

It's all good-ness!  xo

On Apr 25, 2011 Barbara Tieken wrote:

 My path has crossed with Naomi Shihab Nye's several times back in New Braunfels, Texas, when this great poet was still Naomi Shihab. I was privileged to have read poems with Naomi and several other poets at the Shiner Catholic Picnic/ Poetry Reading at Gaslight Theatre.  "Words Under the Words" remains one of my favorite book of poetry.  Naomi is as true and genuine a person as her words.  Her poem on kindness is timeless, especially today with the immigration issues we are facing.  Simple kindness is indeed often expressed more freely by those who have the least. I see that at our Kuykendall Scholarship Bake Sales where we raise money for bright African-American seniors to receive scholarships to "jump start" their higher education.  Some folks who can least afford it are always the ones who come to the bake sale and buy the most.  Our committee's guiding principle is  that we send students to college by selling everything from cakes to collard greens.  And so far, it's been working for eleven years!

On Jul 7, 2011 Claudia Cumming wrote:

Amazing is all I can say.

On Jul 7, 2011 brinda wrote:

WOW. What a powerful poem. Grateful to learn of this wonderful poet.

On Jul 7, 2011 Yogiannej wrote:

 truly beautiful and reminds me of the clan of kindness one immerses into - when nothing else makes sense of letting go 

On Jul 8, 2011 Carolyn Cordon wrote:

Beautiful and healing words

On Sep 13, 2011 ana wrote:

yes    yes        because at first sorrow can seem so isolating

'the tender gravity of kindness'   contains the seed of healing

once you see the 'size of the cloth', you understand that kindness

(to the starving or tortured) contains the seed of hope

where food and rest are the tender gravity necessary for change

so the mirrors may someday all reflect the region of kindness;

(a gift everyone can afford and that all creatures understand)

On Jan 22, 2012 julimac wrote:

This is a killer poem. It stops me dead in my tracks, pierces to that "other deepest thing" and brings me back to myself. 

The reading, on the other hand, is so poorly done, so overly expressive, and falsely expressive that it offends the poem and the poet.

On Oct 6, 2012 Mary Stebbins Taitt wrote:
 My brother's best friend died and only this poem gave him and us small comfort and we love it and it rings in us like deep bells of sadness.

On Dec 31, 2012 mimi nardini wrote:

... so truly, truly lovely !!! thnx mimi

On Sep 24, 2013 fae kontje-gibbs wrote:

 This came to me through a string of friends sharing poetry on facebook....just about the best use of facebook I have encountered yet! a very timely poem to read at 6:10 in the morning after rising hours earlier in the dark, unable to sleep for the anxious worry fear thoughts banging in my head......"then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore."  Life looks better with the eyes open. Laundry folded with love is healing. I heard you read, Naomi, on Martha's Vineyard 2 summers ago and you speak to my life heart mind experience.  Thank you gifted one for having the courage to share it.  Blessings, fae-kontje-gibbs

On Oct 14, 2014 Torinfser wrote:

 That Deep.

On Jan 6, 2015 howard wideman wrote:

 amazing words after our house burn't down October 2014

On May 21, 2015 aderommie wrote:


On Aug 20, 2015 alison wrote:

thank you Naomi
for your kindness

On Jan 31, 2016 Kathryn Kuhlman wrote:

 Beautiful... so true.

On Jun 16, 2016 Grace Lynch wrote:

 beautiful and wise. thank you, Naomi.

On Jul 31, 2016 Silva Popaz wrote:


On Sep 21, 2016 CoolPerson6969 wrote:

 ayy lmao this stuff is good fam 10/10

On Oct 18, 2016 kalifala sanoh wrote:

 always takes advantage of what you have and put it in good use.

On Nov 30, 2016 josiah firl wrote:

 What iis the definition of kindness according to this poem...

On Mar 18, 2018 jim carlin wrote:

 writing-reading-are simple acts of kindness

On Apr 12, 2018 jpw wrote:

 I heard you on Krista Tippit's Sunday morning show and was marvelously impressed. I know you're very busy but in a moment of quiet time maybe you could some of my work. I could send you some. The only thing on my bucket list is to be on Krista's show. Respectfully, Joseph Lee (jpw)

On May 2, 2018 Aryan wrote:

 What is the theme of this poem? 
What are the types of figurative languages she used?
Please tell me

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