The Moment Kindheartedness Walks In

Vincent Van Gogh, The Good Samaritan

Vincent Van Gogh, The Good Samaritan

Sometimes when I get depressed about the state of the world, I do two things. First, I remind myself that too often I allow myself to be stampeded into fear by media headlines, which use adrenaline to hook us. Second, I recollect the many generous and kind people in my life and in the world. Why should I let the fear mongers control my inner conversations when there are all those others doing their work quietly in the shadows?

The other day this necessary reminder came from Farida, a reader who regularly writes in from Uganda.  Farida sent me the following Komunyakaa poem on kindness.I don’t understand everything in it (especially the final two lines), but the poem seems to be about how “kindheartedness” can enter into our broken lives, like sunlight through leaves, and touch even the most brutish of us.Though as humans we have a history of violence–a climbing wheel–that goes all the way back to our days on the savannah, kindhearted deeds nevertheless walk in, “precious as gold & unused chances,” and open our day.Each “praise be” undoes years of blood, and a sober voice “is enough/to calm the waters & drive away /the false witnesses.”

Kindness reminds us that “we were made for fun.”

by Yusef Komunyakaa

For Carol Rigolot


I acknowledge my status as a stranger:
When deeds splay before us
precious as gold & unused chances
stripped from the whine-bone,
we know the moment kindheartedness
walks in. Each praise be
echoes us back as the years uncount
themselves, eating salt. Though blood
first shaped us on the climbing wheel,
the human mind lit by the savanna’s
ice star & thistle rose,
your knowing gaze enters a room
& opens the day,
saying we were made for fun.
Even the bedazzled brute knows
when sunlight falls through leaves
across honed knives on the table.
If we can see it push shadows
aside, growing closer, are we less
broken? A barometer, temperature
gauge, a ruler in minus fractions
& pedigrees, a thingmajig,
a probe with an all-seeing eye,
what do we need to measure
kindness, every unheld breath,
every unkind leapyear?
Sometimes a sober voice is enough
to calm the waters & drive away
the false witnesses, saying, Look,
here are the broken treaties Beauty
brought to us earthbound sentinels.

When Farida e-mailed me this poem, I replied with another paean to kindness, this one found within Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. There he talks about “feelings of unremembered pleasure,” which he says are a man’s “little, nameless, unremembered, acts/Of kindness and of love.” These, he believes, “have no slight or trivial influence/On that best portion of a good man’s life.”

Later in the poem, addressing his “dear, dear sister,” he writes that their relationship, bolstered by nature, can lift them up above a world that all too often is unkind:

this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.

Next time you find yourself choking on salt, bleeding from honed knives, beset by shadows, stumbling over broken treaties, encountering evil tongues, rash judgments, selfish sneers, unkind greetings, and the dreary intercourse of daily life—remember kindness. It will keep you going.

This entry was posted in Komunyakaa (Yusef), Wordsworth (William) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Susan
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    The illustration of the Good Samaritan above, Robin, can remind us that the act of kindness which Jesus uses to answer the question of what it means to be a good neighbor, is one which crosses religious and ethnic barriers. Kindness, one of love’s manifestations, can be thought of as innocuous. But I wonder if it’s really more subversive than we give it credit for.

    I read this morning an article about the Muslims who acted as human shields during the Coptic Christmas Eve services (January 7th.) The link is below. I wonder if this act of kindness, displayed in solidarity for those who were killed in earlier bombings, wasn’t in some way responsible for or at least constributed to the historic change of power we saw last week in Egypt.

    The Muslims who began this initiative took matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for the government to deal with racial tensions. They designed a banner that showed a crescent and a cross together with the phrase “one Egype for all” which was adopted as a status by many facebook users. As the phrase in the poem Farida sent states:

    Sometimes a sober voice is enough
    to calm the waters & drive away
    the false witnesses, saying, Look,
    here are the broken treaties Beauty
    brought to us earthbound sentinels.

    This act of kindness was indeed one of great beauty. And it was accompanied, it seems, by peace, which was one of the predominant feelings that many of those protesters described upon hearing of Mubarak’s stepping down from power. I believe that kindness, beauty and peace are knit into the very fabric of the universe, which is why nature speaks to us so powerfully. It shines, as Julian of Norwich reminds us, with glory – goodness, truth and beauty. And reminds us that we too can be filled with glory, as we act in kindness toward our neighbor.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Kindness as subversive–I like the idea a great deal, Susan. And if kindness was linked to the overthrow of Mubarak (and if it helped early Christians survive in spite of Roman persecutions), that’s a sign of its toughness. I’m struck by one moment in the Egyptian revolution which seems to have been key and may have some link to the defense of the Coptics: some think that Mubarak may have given a deliberately provocative speech so as to incite riots and thereby trigger army repression. But the rioting did not happen and he was ousted. Maybe not a kind response exactly, but not violence either.

  3. Katja
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    This is a very uplifting post, with two wonderful poems! There’s one quote in particular that immediately springs to my mind when kindness and religion are mentioned: “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” (-Dalai Lama). It’s a rather cliche quote, but I feel it summarises nicely the very best there is in any religion and any individual that believes in humanity and compassion.

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Cliche though it may be, Katja, I didn’t know it. So I’m glad you told us about it. (If it’s new, it’s not a cliche, right?)

  5. Katja
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I agree. Then I’ll give you another one quote (not really a cliche, I guess, but perhaps a bit sentimental) from a magnet I bought at SMCM’s bookstore and put on the fridge back home to look at it every morning and remember all of the good things I’ve been blessed with in my life– kindness being one of them, one of the things I treasure most–and to remind myself they are not to be taken for granted:

    “The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light amid the thorns.” (–George Santayana)

    (Well, the makers of the magnet omitted the “timidly, and struggles to the light amid the thorns” part of the quote to make it sound more optimistic, I guess.)

    Kindness, I feel, radiates through those thorns. It may need to struggle a bit, but it always reaches the light.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!