Series on Suffering #10 – Kindness

Robynn continues the series on suffering today with a look at kindness.

kindness I’m wondering if suffering gives us a taste for kindness? In suffering you are stripped bare of all your own resources. There’s a desperation of spirit that settles in, a profound loneliness, a longing for empathetic companionship, a desire for kindness. In some ways we fail to recognize true kindness until we’ve tasted sorrow and despair. Kindness, like generosity and joy, are taken for granted until we’ve known heart-aching suffering.

A faraway friend, who has tracked this series on suffering, sent me this poem a few weeks ago. It has been simmering in my soul ever since. The poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, is certainly a woman who has lived between worlds. Raised by a Palestinian father and an American mother, she spent parts of her life here in the US and parts of her life in the Arab world. She understands the complexities of living with a scattered soul and her writing reflects that.

Nye once said, “I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime…”

She has seen up close, “how desolate the landscape can be.” Nye knows suffering and sorrow. She knows the agonies of loving two places at once –and the horrors of knowing those two places misunderstand one another. After the Twin Towers attack in New York City in 2001, Naomi Nye contributed some of her most meaningful work in an effort to bridge the divide between Americans and Arabs.

Today I give you her poem, Kindness. Originally written in 1995, it resurfaced with powerful meaning after 9/11. Violence in the world opens our communal longings to questions we might not have asked before. We find ourselves begging for meaning. Personal suffering does the same thing, on a smaller scale, perhaps, for the universe, but in a much more demanding way for the individual soul.

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 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 goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~ Naomi Shihab Nye

Read more about Naomi Shihab Nye here:

Three Women and a Prize!

We are dancing. This is the thing that we have been saying, progress has been made in Liberia. We’ve come through 14 years of war and we have come to sustained peace. We’ve already started dancing.

I am dancing. I want my daughters to dance! Three women have won the Nobel Peace Prize for the real thing – promotion of peace and gender equality through NON VIOLENCE. I am ecstatic. These are women who are working toward change, not through anger but through action.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist also from Liberia; and Tawakul Karman, an activist for democracy from Yemen, were awarded the prize today by the Nobel Committee based in Oslo, Norway. The award, which has been given for 110 years, has generally gone to men, and this is a marvelous day and achievement for women around the world.

As a peace activist, Leymah Gbowee has brought together both Christians and Muslims for a joint cause – fighting the warlords in the country of Liberia. What an example of breaking down religious and ethnic barriers to work for a common cause that would benefit all! It is an amazing picture of communicating across boundaries and not stopping until something is achieved. There is a great story of her rallying women together to sing and pray at a fish market in Liberia in 2002 – 9 years ago, before much of the world had heard about her. These women were sick of being fearful and tired of losing their children to rebel armies. That day they “prayed the devil back to hell”, and with their prayers, change began.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was exiled for several years before returning to her country and taking office. Tawakul Karmen is called  the “mother of the revolution” in Yemen and many in the Arab world feel that in awarding her, the Arab-Spring was also awarded and honored.

As I think about these women, it is a reminder that most big achievements begin with a small step of obedience and continue with more small steps, even when no one seems to be listening and the goal seems far away. The great thing is these women didn’t do this with any prize in mind. They acted on their beliefs and passions, standing up for truth and determined to see change.  They “packed up their potential, and set out to change a few things!”.

As women our influence begins with a conversation. It may then spread to a fish market or a beauty salon, a brothel or a church, but the message and influence can multiply. That we must believe. These three women have shown us that it can, and does, spread.

Honk Twice for Women in Saudi Arabia!

I found myself once again living between worlds last night as the beginning of the evening saw me at a large church, seated around a table wrapping up an 8 week course designed for people who are curious about Christianity, followed by staying past midnight at a party hosted by a woman from Saudi Arabia, Maha.

Maha is a beautiful woman. She is a mom of three, has her Masters and her PhD and if that isn’t enough, she is also an artist. Among many other things, we began talking about Saudi Arabia and women driving. She stated that there is no law on the books that says it is illegal for women to drive. It’s a law in enforcement only, based on an extreme interpretation of Islam .  She alerted me to something I hadn’t picked up in the mainstream news. Today a group of Saudi women are taking to the streets…in cars.

Just as the spring has come and brought change to the Arab world, today, June 17, 2011, Saudi women have planned their own call for change.  Their call? For women in Saudi Arabia to protest the ban on driving by going out in large numbers in their cars.  On May 22nd, Manal-el-Sharif, a Saudi activist, filmed herself driving and posted it on Youtube. Despite her arrest, the campaign with a twitter name of Women2Drive and a Facebook page of the same, is not slowing down and today is the day where Saudi women are calling for solidarity worldwide.

As they take to the streets in their cars, they are asking all of us to come alongside them in support. If you can, put a sign on your car that says “Honk twice if you support Saudi women drivers”. There is also a YouTube sight for you to post videos of driving and honking in support of the movement. This is so easy to do, it takes no effort on our parts but can show a group of women that we support their strength and their desire to be able to drive.

It is way too easy for the west to sit back and criticize the Muslim world. Today is a day to support and honk for change. So as you get in the car and turn the key starting your engine, make sure you honk twice and remember to say “You go Girls!”

Books that Inform

Blogger’s note: In light of world events and the often present  ‘information gap’ in conversations on Islam – here are two books that inform!

Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think” should be a mandatory read for diplomats and administrative personnel who hold positions where communicating with those in the Arab world is a regular occurrence.  It is also a good book to recommend for those interested in learning more about this part of the world and the complexity surrounding what the west thinks ‘they’ think and should be concerned about vs. what ‘they’ say they think and what they are concerned about.  This small book with a red cover is the result of a Gallup poll that took place over a few years time.  Thousands and thousands of interviews were conducted in 35 Muslim-majority countries asking clear and pointed questions of the interviewees.  Important to note: this wasn’t the thoughts of either those with extreme views or those who speak as experts but rather regular people going about their lives.  People like many of the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.

The second book that I have found to be a great resource is the book “A New Introduction to Islam” by Dr. Daniel Brown. This 269-page book with a beautiful cover is an excellent introduction and ‘go to’ book for history and a greater understanding of Muslim beliefs and practices. For coffee lovers, be sure to check out “The Coffee Debate” on page 116! Full disclosure here – Dr. Brown is my brother and an excellent writer and thinker! But lest there be any accusation of nepotism in my urging people to read I will include the recommendation from Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed, currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC.

“The events of September 11 and afterwards have forced us to ask questions about the nature and history of Islam, Daniel Brown’s clear and authoritative book helps us to understand this world religion now at the center of controversy, discussion, and debate…”

Both of these books are excellent ways to begin to fill the information gap and will make great additions to your coffee table or bedside stand.

A ‘Gathering of the People’ through Neighborhood Watch

Author’s Note:  My daughter Annie is currently in Egypt and has been for the past 2 years working towards a Masters Degree.  Our love and interest in Egypt runs deep from 7 years of living in the country and many trips back since we left.  Because of this my focus in blog posts will be on the crisis in the country for the next few days.  Thanks for reading!

Annie’s voice was clear despite the static surrounding the connection. It had taken both of us over 20 tries and a couple of cut-off connections before finally reaching her.  Snipers on rooftops and gunfire kept her awake much of the night and influenced the decision to move to another neighborhood about 2 miles away before start of the curfew at 4pm. What would normally have been a short ride to her friend’s house was longer due to road blocks and altered traffic patterns.

She spoke of  the neighborhood watch groups that have stepped up all over Cairo, impressed with their efficacy.  The presence of these self-nominated groups is allowing communities to feel a sense of care and safety in their immediate neighborhoods despite the uncertainty of the larger picture. In her view the neighborhood watch is how life should be all the time, not just in crisis.  Egyptians are stepping up, directing traffic in their neighborhoods, making sure people are inside if it’s not safe and in general helping out.  She confirms the word we had heard that much of the looting is done by plain clothes police confirmed through their identification cards.  Both Annie and a long-time  friend of ours who I just spoke with cannot say enough about these groups.  Our friend Ann described is as a “gathering of the people.  The men are out all night patrolling and sleep during the day”. She stated that these groups have blocked off their neighborhoods making it difficult for cars to easily move in and out of the area.

I wonder if care  of this type would occur in my neighborhood.  As I view people in our cities tiredly shoveling snow upon snow from the assault that this winter has brought, all working with little assistance from their neighbors I struggle to picture groups in Boston ensuring safety and care for the entire neighborhood.  Is it the difference between a collectivist view of life vs. an individual ‘pull up your bootstraps’ view?  Or is it the collective human response to crisis no matter what the cultural context?  I like to think it’s the latter and a snow-storm doesn’t fit the criteria for crisis.

There is something of a righteous anger in her and her friends as they watch a stubborn administration hanging on while hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in the streets of  major cities and smaller towns continue to say with their actions and words that something has to change. The recent cabinet appointments have only served to fuel the frustration as there is no faith in the men chosen. The chants in Arabic “Civilian government, Civilian Government” are loud and clear. Along with that is the dismay that the dreaded E word has been raised – Evacuation.  There is at heart a sense that they would be abandoning Egyptians and leaving protesters in a place where resolution is still several days of curfew and collateral damage away.

After ensuring phone numbers, passport numbers and contingency plans were all in place we said goodbye with the uneasiness of knowing the turning-point is still to come.

Authors note: If you have a sense of confusion and gaps on why there is an uprising in Egypt here is a link to a short but informative piece that may help – A Short Primer on Egypt. For other posts on Egypt feel free to link to these: