Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
I never understood this quote when I first heard it. I got the kind part, but not the battle part. I think most of us go through life experiencing other people as the sum of our interactions with that person. So unless you know their story or unless you have reason to believe someone is struggling, it just doesn’t really sink in.
For the most part I think I looked at the world as ‘fine.’ Everyone in the world is doing what they need to be doing. Going on about their lives with occasional outbursts of not being fine when something bad happens. But my general filter was myself, and my life is pretty fine. It became impossible for me to see someone else and the world from their perspective because I was entirely enthralled by me and my own fineness.
It took a time in my life of not being fine to see someone else. Once I started seeing more people, I became much more aware of this ‘great battle’ that everyone was fighting. It is everywhere and I never knew it. Most people are not fine. Most people are hurting. Most people have suffered loss. Most people are insecure. Most people want to be held and loved and are without. It wasn’t until I understood my own hurt, loss, insecurity, and needs was I able to see someone else.
The only practical response to seeing all of this and all these people in a new light is compassion and kindness. That’s it.
Jesus has this fascinating exchange with a woman in Luke 7 in what I think was him trying to share this similar truth. The story ends with Jesus telling a Pharisee that “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” We should see “sin” the way Jesus does: as brokenness (and not as actions that taken that have broken the rules) and forgiveness as the act in which one acknowledges that brokenness. If we do this, then we can see that this is exactly what Jesus is saying. The more you can acknowledge your brokenness, the more you can love. The proverbial Pharisee lacks the capacity for compassion and kindness because he lacks the awareness of his own state.
Naomi’s poem on kindness reflects a similar connection. You cannot know kindness unless you experience loss. This likely would have sounded strange to me at first. I can’t love without forgiveness, I can’t be kind without loss. But I get it. I was incapable of such deep and powerful emotions/actions such as love and compassion. I’m unsure I am so capable still, but I at least know what parts of my life I need to embrace in order to be more closer to this love that I profess I believe in.
Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
Before you know what kindness really is
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.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
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.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at 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 goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.