Thank you, to all who have signed up for the newsletter after reading Modern Love. Welcome. I am so grateful that you are here. And to those who have written to me this week, I am so grateful. I will be replying soon.
As someone who tends to see my value as directly proportional to how much my actions make the world more just, I can be judgmental of people who speak about kindness. Kindness, as a concept, is often used by groups who don’t want to do the harder work of reckoning with power imbalances. I worry that focusing on kindness is an attempt to paper over real hurt, grief, and oppression. “Be kind” sounds awfully flimsy when there are people suffering.
Earlier this week, our son Khalil asked if there were any grownups named Khalil. David told him about Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Harvard historian, author, and host of the podcast Some of My Best Friends Are. Khalil latched on and couldn’t stop talking about “the other Khalil,” gazing at photos, watching his videos. He asked to make a video for Khalil. In it, he says “Hi Khalil, my name is Khalil.”
Parenting makes me braver (and embarrassing), so I found grownup Khalil’s email on Harvard’s website and sent him the video with a short note that I tried to keep complimentary without veering into creepy. What I didn’t say is that our Khalil had been begging to “drive by the grownup Khalil’s house so he can be my friend.” When David mentioned that grownup Khalil lives in New York City, where David grew up, Khalil asked if they grew up in the same house.
To my surprise, Dr. Muhammad wrote back quickly, and before long, we had scheduled a Zoom call for later that afternoon. Our Khalil was elated, making a list of the questions he would ask. Video calls are tricky for kids, though, and he was mostly quiet when they talked. Dr. Muhammad was kind and patient with Khalil, asking thoughtful questions and introducing Khalil to his dog. Khalil got off the call elated and positive that they were “buddies” and that they would visit each other soon. His generosity and kindness with our son were staggering and gave us hope during an otherwise demoralizing week.
Our conversation with Khalil made me think about kindness. Our family had been at the receiving end of some demoralizing discrimination and cruelty earlier this week, and it had made me feel profoundly hopeless. The story of what happened to us this week isn’t mine to share publicly, but I will say this. When I was crying so hard that I gagged, and lay trapped, despondent, in bed, it’s kindness that gave me hope.
And in the hours since my Modern Love piece came out on Friday, I have witnessed kindness in the form of dozens of honest and generous emails. I have cried reading every one. It is deeply brave and generous to share your time and stories with me. Thank you. And it reminds me how much we all want to be witnessed and to connect.
So I guess it must be both. We need to work, bravely, to change the whole fucking system. When “kindness” is a way to evade justice, it is cruelty. But, when it connects us to each other and gives us the strength to keep moving forward, then it’s love.
Naomi Shihab Nye
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.