For the Week of February 21, 2106: Only Kindness
The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the greatest intention.–Kahlil Gibran
Kindness. I have been focusing on this word each morning, remembering that life is truly measured in the everyday, momentary interactions we have with others. It’s about the offer to help carry a package, to give our place in line to another, send a card to someone who’s ill, and to treat one another with compassion and respect. It helps me to think about kindness each day because, in the context of the contentious political environment in this country, where continual opposition, ridicule and volleys of verbal attacks have replaced any hope of rational debate, the American democratic values I was taught in grade school —ones I believed included fundamental human kindness– seem like distant memories. Those values I once took for granted seem irrevocably lost in the current political circus, the violence and racism dominating the news each night.
“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)
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.” Despite the barrage of images from war, violence and suffering, acts of kindness have always been valued across cultures and religions. 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 something we offer to others without expectation of reward or recompense. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, kindness is defined as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself… Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche described kindness and love as “the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse.” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindness)
Many of us have discovered the healing power of kindness during times of serious illness, life hardship, or just a day when things don’t seem to go right. We often discover kindness when we least expect it, from people we may not even know. Yet it’s these small acts, the little gestures that are easily overlooked or barely noticed, that we discover hope and gratitude.
Kindness goes hand in hand with gratitude. If I begin my day by remembering the little kindnesses I experienced in the previous 24 hours, I feel gratitude. All I have to do is pay attention—get out of my head, my little worries or complaints, and start my day with an attitude of kindness, a practice helped by a meditation of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
Compassion and kindness are illustrated in the poem, “Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan. She describes the nightly visits from a hospital worker, Juan, who mops her room 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 to heal. Juan manifests kindness in his concern: How’s it really going? This is what kindness is—sincere, real, and deeply human, small everyday acts of compassion. Kindness also provides solace. Hope finds a way back into our daily lives. We become better and kinder human beings for experiencing it.
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 your dampened spirit, sadness or loneliness.
Once we rediscover kindness in our lives, as Naomi Shihab-Nye tells us:
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
The world could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?
For the Week of February 21st: First You Must Have the Quiet
I enjoyed a few days of solitude this past week, rare since my husband retired from academic life. He traveled to Sacramento for the week for a short-term consulting project while I rediscovered the joy of a morning routine which began before sunrise and the solitude to write undisturbed in the morning stillness. Without distractions, I found I was paying attention, being fully present to my outer and inner worlds. It was a gift and a reminder of how important it is to sit in silence and be present to what is right in front of me vs. letting the day’s demands rush in to consume my thoughts. I began each day in gratitude instead of worry or running through the list of tasks that needed attention.
I’ve written before how our attention and energies can be pulled in many, and often conflicting, directions by the demands of a busy life or times of of illness, pain or hardship. The solitude of writing offers a respite for me. I quiet an overactive mind, reclaim a sense of calm, and find solace and healing. Without it, I feel incomplete, or slightly off-center.
Writing has always been a refuge for me, particularly in difficult times, but not every kind of writing helps us heal. It’s not uncommon in times of serious illness, pain or suffering, that what has happened to us seems to defy understanding. “An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart,” Joyce Carol Oates has said. And some thorns in the heart may defy removal. I remember how, in the first tumultuous years after my husband died in a drowning accident, I filled my journal pages night after night with a barrage of unanswerable questions, sorrow, anger and self-recrimination. At first, the outpourings gave temporary relief from the turbulence of my conflicting emotions, but before long, I was a broken record, my notebooks filled with a vicious cycle of rumination. I didn’t feel better. I felt worse. I finally put my journal aside and sought the help of a therapist.
At first, I did little more than weep and grieve in the safety of a supportive other, but soon, I began again to write, and as I did, my healing began. It was different this time. I wrote poetry—raw and wordy at first—and each week, I shared a new poem each with my therapist. To his credit, he never attempted to dissect, interpret or question, instead, he simply responded with gratitude. “Thank you,” he said. Nothing more. It was enough. I felt affirmed, and I felt heard. My poems took on new depth, descriptive quality and insight. I began to get outside of my suffering and awaken to the world around me. I re-discovered gratitude and a deep and abiding sense of what was most meaningful in my life.
It’s something poets and writers have written about many times. We write ourselves into knowing, discovery and healing. Ted Kooser, cancer survivor and poet, writing the introduction to his book, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison said:
“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”
In his book, we find a touching portrayal of a poet recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his solitary walks and captured in short, yet profound, poems. He noticed life and the beauty of the natural world around him once more.
I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival. Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
Kooser reminds us of the importance of noticing, of paying attention, being fully present. Through his poems, we witness his recovery, but it’s the spiritual recovery we are most touched by, not the physical one, and the friendship exemplified in the sharing of poems between friends. Harrison and Kooser had long exchanged poems in the letters they wrote to one another, but after Kooser’s cancer diagnosis, Harrison described Kooser’s poetry as “overwhelmingly vivid.” They began a correspondence made entirely of short poems “because that was the essence of what we wanted to say to each other,” Harrison said. (From the book jacket of Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, 2003).
“Poetry…,” Robert McDowell states in Poetry as a Spiritual Practice “leads to stillness, the calm center where you are most open and alive. Poetry…makes you more mindful, and as you become so, you gracefully reconnect with the natural world.” The great poet, Robert Frost, according to McDowell, said that “poetry doesn’t so much tell us anything new, but reminds us of things that we need to know but forgot” (p.6).
Things we need to know but forgot… And I was in danger of forgetting why I need the solitude to write each morning. I don’t think of myself as a poet—far from it—but in the stillness of early morning, the ritual of writing helps me pay attention and appreciate the beauty of life happening just outside my window—a hummingbird’s frolic at the fountain, the swoop and glide of a red tail hawk over the canyon, the call and response of the doves as mating season nears. Writing has become my meditation, a kind of prayer. Through it, I am constantly reminded of how we are simply a part of something greater, of all living things.
In her poem, “Gratitude,” Mary Oliver, asks–and answers—eight simple questions.
What did you notice?
The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…
The poem continues, in a pattern of a question of the narrator and her response, a treasure of richly described observations of the natural world. At the end of the poem, she poses one last question:
What did you think was happening?
And answers: …so the gods shake us from our sleep.
(From: What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems, 2003)
The poet Wendell Berry often spent his Sunday mornings in a walking meditation, observing the world and writing poetry which ultimately became his collection of “Sabbath poems” spanning two decades of his Sunday morning walks. In the preface Berry writes, “These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors…the poems are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware…”
Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
(In: A Timbered Choir, 1998)
Paying attention, “capturing moments when heart and mind are open and aware” helps us rediscover and reclaim the sacred in our lives. As Oliver and others remind us, it’s about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s inside or right in front of our eyes, opening ourselves to a process of spiritual exploration. These past few days alone served as a reminder to me how very necessary it is to “have the quiet,” the solitude, to open my heart and mind and truly pay attention to what is around me. Although my husband has retired and is now at home in the mornings, his presence is not an excuse for not preserving my period of solitude and the quiet in my morning writing practice. I was, I realized this past week, letting that precious quiet slip away. I am grateful I had the chance to reclaim it.
Writing Suggestion: Reclaim the sacred and spiritual in your life. Embrace the quiet, the stillness. Meander along a trail, near the sea, the woods, a long walk along city streets. Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and movement. Write about what you see—one single observation. Describe it and let it take you wherever it takes you.
“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
You empty yourself and wait, listening.”
—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
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