“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “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.
(From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)
When cancer or other serious illness strikes, life as we once knew it will never be the same. In the loss that comes with the sense of self, the body we once took for granted, the landscape between those regions of kindness, does seem desolate. But in small acts of compassion that we experience from others, hope somehow finds a way back in, solace is given, and we begin to heal and find our way back to life. As Shihab-Nye says,
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Kindness, the simple act of friendship, compassion and generosity to others, has a long history in humankind. It was one of the “Knightly Virtues,”a set of ‘standards the Knights of the Middle Ages adhered to in daily living and their interactions with others. Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness.” Across cultures and religions, acts of kindness are valued. The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” Iman Musa Al-Kadhim, seventh after the prophet Mohammed, wrote that “Kindness is half of life”. Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind”(I Corinthians), while in Buddhism, Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”
Kindness is defined as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself… “ In Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche described kindness and love as “the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse.” (Source: Wikipedia)
As many of us have discovered during serious illness or life hardship, kindness can exert healing power to our wounded spirits. If we’re paying attention, we often discover kindness when we least expect it, from people we may not even know. It’s in those small acts of kindness that we discover hope and gratitude for the small gifts in life, ones we once overlooked or barely even noticed.
“Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” a poem written by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan, illustrates the power of kindness. Ryan writes about a janitor, Juan, who mopped her hospital floor at night:
I remember the rhythm of the dunking;
The mop going into the pail
Juan squeezing the mop
The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…
With every move, he looked up:
“How’s it really going?”
“Did your boy come up today?”
“How is he doing without you at home?”
Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head
off the pillow—
when vomiting and mouth sores
wouldn’t let me speak—
the swish of his mop
bestowed the final blessing
of the night…
(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin B. Miller, Ed., 2001)
As Ryan’s poem illustrates, kindness helps us find our way out of darkness. It helps us heal. Compassion and caring, are often manifested in small acts of concern: How’s it really going? This is kindness, the small everyday acts that go a long way to healing ourselves and others. Kindness not only helps us heal; we become better—kinder ourselves– for experiencing it. The world could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?
Here’s a suggestion for writing. First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day. Perhaps you played it forward—because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need. Write about how an act of kindness eased the desolation, sadness or loneliness you experienced during a difficult time.