“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”
excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)
“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again. Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore. Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015
Last fall my friend Lila killed herself. She was a member of our congregation. She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats. She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight. She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.
The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died. The list is short, and I am grateful for that. But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old. She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night. She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.
So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned. “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her. Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness. But she asked, and I answered. “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”
“Why?” “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad. I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore. I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.” I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.
This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”. They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter. I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them. To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow. Despair is the last bastion of hope.
I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon. They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.
And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.
“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here. We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again. In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”
“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”