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.