On Kindness

Have you ever walked into a house that lacked kindness? How about a church? Have you ever sat down at a cold table or walked down a street where the neighbors weren’t really neighbors at all? Could you feel it – in the air, in the conversation, in the architecture – that this is a place that lacks generosity of spirit?

Have you ever overheard someone talking on their cellphone nastily to some loved one? You only hear the one side of the conversation, but you start to imagine yourself on the other end of the phone. And you start to feel wronged. You imagine that you’re the one on the receiving end of all that venom. And you start to feel it pumping in your veins.

Has someone ever sat down on the spot on the subway you were patiently waiting for? You’re a New Yorker, your face doesn’t even slip. You take it on the chin. “I didn’t really want to sit there anyway! After all, I’m getting in off in just 17 stops! Nothing you can do can phase me!” And two days later. Brushing your teeth before bed. You can still feel it.

Or maybe as you’ve continued to listen to the stream of incessant indecency pouring forth from the president and his administration and supporters, you begin to realize you’ve crossed a tipping point. Your outrage used to be based on a sense on innate righteousness and compassion for those harmed. But, worn out and jaded, now it feels like your outrage is feeding off a sac of poisonous anger and hatred swelling for your enemies and threatening to burst inside of you.

I want to talk with you all about kindness this evening. What it feels like when kindness is practiced and what it feels like when kindness is missing. When I speak of kindness, I don’t just mean politeness. And I certainly don’t mean niceness. Bleck. When it comes to politeness and niceness, I’m neutral. I wouldn’t want them to show up on a list of my worst qualities. That’d be a shame. But even more than that I wouldn’t want them to show up on the list of my best qualities. “What’d you think of that guy?” “He’s nice.” Oh boy.

But I do hope that my kindness makes a difference to the people around me. I do hope people notice. When I’m unkind, I am ashamed. I admit to it. I apologize. I try to make it right.

The kind of kindness I’m talking about is a relationship. In fact, etymologically, the word “kindness” has the same roots as the word “kin.” The word originally grew out of the sense that when you were kind to someone or they were kind to you, you were behaving as if you were blood, family.

Kindness is an intimate relationship, a fundamental way of being, and a critical building block of our social structures. And like many relationships, kindness runs on loop. When we are kind to others, others are inspired to be kind to others. And when we receive that kindness feedback it grows in us and we are more likely to pass it on again. When kindness is there, we can feel it. We know it deep inside. And it feels good. And when kindness is missing, we feel it acutely. It makes us uncomfortable and angry. We dwell on it like a sore tooth. It hurts us all.

Beloved, recently, I’ve felt a lot of unkindness. I feel it every time there’s another shooting, or another tweet, or another election, or another news story. Deportations that separate families, a justice system that criminalizes blackness, a culture that demeans and disregards women, school shootings that we clash over but don’t do anything about so that more kids die – what are these things if they’re not malignancies of unkindness – a total breakdown of the loop? And, I wonder, what can I do? What can we do? How do we respond to a cancer like that, that’s eating us alive?

Our wonderful poem this evening by Naomi Shihab Nye, suggests that in times of great unkindness, there may be an opportunity for us, in our pain and discomfort, to come to truly know the depth of the need for kindness. Nye writes that before we can know what kindness really is, we need to lose things. We need to sit with the bodies of the victims by the side of the road and realize that we are them and they are us. Kindness will only be as easy for us, she says, as the depths of our sorrows.

Nye was riding with her husband on a bus in Colombia. They were on their honeymoon – a three-month trip through South America. It was the end of the first week. And their bus was robbed. The robbers stole everything from them – all their money, all their documents. And they murdered another passenger who was on the bus – an indigenous man wearing a white poncho, mentioned in the poem.

Eventually arriving to town visibly shaken, a man came by and asked Nye and her husband what had happened to them, and they told him. And he told them how sorry he was that that had happened to them. And he went on.

And as night was coming on, Nye was sitting by herself in a plaza, feeling anxious because her husband had hitchhiked off to a larger city to try to get some money. And she was thinking about all that happened that day and trying to figure out “Where do I go from here?” And after experiencing that extreme depth of unkindness – robbery and murder – and, also, after experiencing one simple gesture of kindness – a passerby’s sympathetic ear – a female voice came to her, as if from across the plaza, and spoke this poem, “Kindness,” to her. And she wrote it down. In an interview with Krista Tippet on the podcast “On Being” Nye referred to herself as the poem’s “secretary.” Others might call her a prophetess of kindness. The poem has become a touchstone for many people – a means to find their way back to kindness.  

It’s feels true, but hard, that we must know loss, and pain, and sorrow to truly dedicate ourselves to the way of kindness. But there is hope for me in all this because that one little act of kindness – Hey, you don’t look so good; what happened to you? Are you OK? – was also necessary for the poem to find Nye. And the hope is that even small acts of kindness can counterbalance a great need for kindness.

And isn’t that what our scripture reading this evening is about – the miracle of giving the little we have to offset an impossibly great need? Not merely to meet the need, but to surpass it. Not only did five loaves of bread feed 5,000 people, but when the five loaves were gone, there were twelve baskets of crumbs left over. Not only did a little go a long way, but a little bread given away returned again (little by little, in crumbs) more than was given in the first place.

I believe that is the way it works with kindness – the miracle for the disciples, and the little boy who volunteered his fish and loaves, was the miracle of getting to SEE the effect of the kind act, seeing the bellies filled, knowing that what came back was really a result of what was given. We don’t always get to see that, do we?

Sometimes our acts of kindness feel like stones thrown into an ocean of need. We can never imagine that one little stone will make a difference. We can’t believe that the wave that will wash a fish onto shore for us tomorrow could have anything to do with our little pebble ripple. The need is so big! And the system is so complicated! Maybe, we despair, what goes in and what comes out have no relationship to one another. It’s all random. It’s all chaos. All noise and luck. Therefore, nothing I do, kind or unkind, ultimately makes a difference.

But what we do does matter. And as Christians, as people of the fishes and the loaves, we are called to believe that we matter and that we have been given the grace and power to make a big difference with even a little bread. I wonder if the man who stopped to give kind words to Nye and her husband on the street ever could have imagined that those simple words would turn into a poem beloved by thousands of  people around the world. Have you ever inspired a poem? A healing? A salvation? A movement? Maybe you have. Better yet, maybe you will. AMEN.