views updated May 18 2018

Naomi Shihab Nye

Author Biography
Poem Text
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Naomi Shihab Nye's poem "Kindness" appears in her first collection of poems, Different Ways to Pray, published in 1980. The tone, themes, and ideas presented in this inaugural volume establish Nye's core message as a poet and as a human being: All of humanity is worthy of respect, deserving of consideration, and in need of kindness. "Kindness" is reprinted in Nye's 1995 collection Words under the Words, which compiles selections from her first three books: Different Ways to Pray, Hugging the Jukebox (1982), and Yellow Glove (1986).

The poet's many travels have taken her to some of the world's most prosperous countries and thriving cities as well as to some of the harshest and poorest lands, where violence, hunger, and injustice are common. One such place is Colombia, a country in northwestern South America. In Colombia, the natural beauty of a lush landscape with mountains and rivers is sometimes overshadowed by the ugliness of social oppression, government corruption, drug trafficking, and violent crime. Somewhere within this ironic blend of nature's magnificence and society's decadence, Nye finds a reason to believe in the power of simple acts of kindness. This belief is the inspiration for her poem of the same name, which signs off with the single word "Colombia" below the work's final line. In the original version in Different Ways to Pray, the poem ends with "(Colombia, 1978)."

Despite its attention to loss and desolation, "Kindness" is a positive poem with an optimistic ending. It acknowledges the unavoidable presence of sorrow in human life but points out that one must understand and accept the bad in order to appreciate and achieve the good. The speaker's perspective is based on both personal observation and philosophical musing.

Author Biography

Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Aziz Shihab, was a Palestinian and her mother, Miriam Naomi Allwardt, an American. Nye's upbringing in a household of differing cultures and heritages influenced not only her subsequent writing career but also her entire outlook on life. Nye became interested in reading and writing poetry at a very young age, publishing her first poems in a children's magazine at age seven. Years later, her family moved to Jerusalem, where she attended her first year of high school. More important, Nye experienced her first real connection to the homeland of her father and his Arab heritage. The Shihab family returned to the United States in 1967, settling in San Antonio, Texas.

Nye received her bachelor's degree in English and world religions from Trinity University in 1974, and in 1975, she became a poet in the schools for the Texas Arts Commission. She then held positions as a visiting writer and lecturer at various universities and worked as a freelance writer and editor. Throughout this time, Nye continued to write poetry, both for adults and for young readers. Her first full-length collection, Different Ways to Pray, in which "Kindness" first appeared, was published in 1980. Nye's collection of poetry titled You and Yours was published in 2005. Her two volumes for young readers, Is This Forever, or What? Poems and Paintings from Texas and A Maze Me: Poems for Girls were published in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

Nye traveled extensively, and much of the inspiration for her creative work is drawn from times she spent in the Middle East, Central and South America, and the Native American and Mexican regions of the southwestern United States. The strongest influence on Nye's writing is the wonder, beauty, and honor she recognizes in different cultures and different ethnic environments. Her poem "Kindness" is a testament to Nye's reverence for humanity, and it is representative of the themes for which Nye has become a notable contemporary American writer.

Nye received numerous awards and honors for her publications, among them, four Pushcart Prizes, the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets, a Witter Bynner fellowship from the U.S. Library of Congress, and several awards for her work in children's poetry and literature, including a 2002 National Book Award finalist nomination in the young people's literature category for Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. As of 2005, Nye was living in San Antonio with her husband, the photographer Michael Nye.

Poem Text

   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,                    5
   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                         10
   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  15
   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.           20
   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                 25
   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                 30
   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.
   Colombia.                                        35

Poem Summary

Lines 1-2

The first two lines of "Kindness" establish a premise that runs throughout the poem: Before a person knows one thing, he or she must know something else. (The "you" in this work refers simply to the universal "you," or people in general, not to a specific person.) In this case, the real meaning of kindness, which seems easy to understand, is shown to be more complex than one may realize. The speaker suggests, ironically, that to "know what kindness really is," first "you must lose things."

Lines 3-4

Instead of explaining what the opening lines mean right away, the speaker relies on an intriguing metaphor to make the point. (A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares an intended concept or thing to something unrelated as a way to clarify the original intention.) The speaker wants to describe how the future can "dissolve in a moment," so she compares it to "salt" dissolving "in a weakened broth." The notion of losing all of one's tomorrows is a frightening prospect, and likening it to something as easy as salt blending into soup makes it all the more chilling. The first thing "you must lose" to know true kindness, then, is a hefty loss indeed.

Lines 5-9

Lines 5 through 9 provide further examples of what one must lose to know kindness. "What you held in your hand" may be an infinite number of items, but the implication is that it is something significant enough and dear enough that someone would want to hold it close. The subject of line 6 is clearer. "What you counted and carefully saved" refers to money, a vital commodity in most people's lives. Even these precious items "must go" before one can comprehend "how desolate the landscape can be / between the regions of kindness." In other words, one must give up the good things in life to understand how bad and how barren living can be during times of hardship and sorrow.

Media Adaptations

  • In 1995, Nye appeared on The Language of Life with Bill Moyers, an eight-part series on PBS featuring interviews with poets. The interviews are available on a single audiocassette from Random House Audio.

Lines 10-13

Line 10 connects directly to line 8, beginning with "How" and developing the idea that only total loss can remove the blinders that many people wear when it comes to seeing reality as it is. The bus rider is guilty of ignoring the suffering and injustice that others endure by "thinking the bus will never stop" and believing that the other passengers will continue their pleasant and endless journey while "eating maize and chicken" and gazing benignly "out the window forever." The word "maize" insinuates that the other bus riders are natives of the land, because it is a word for corn derived from an extinct Latin American language and translated by the Spanish. Maize is sometimes referred to as "Indian corn."

Lines 14-16

Throughout the first three stanzas, lines 1 to 13, examples of the opposite side of kindness grow more serious and more depressing: from the future as dissolving salt, losing something once held dear, and forfeiting a life's savings to the lonely, haunting death of an unknown Indian who "lies dead by the side of the road," seemingly of no concern to those who pass by. The phrase "tender gravity" implies the fickle and fragile nature of kindness, and it is this deepest level that one needs to reach to understand kindness. The word "tender" also is a startling opposite of the senseless inhumanity in letting the dead lie in the street without the benefit or respect of proper treatment.

Lines 17-20

Lines 17 through 20 are perhaps the most poignant in the poem. They make a remarkably strong human-to-human connection between the forgotten dead Indian and every person who passes by—the "you" in general. The vital message is that what happens to the Indian can happen to anyone in the world. The words "this could be you" bring the poem's message down to the gut level: Regardless of one's ethnicity or race, economic status, nationality, educational level, or any other defining characteristic, human beings are all "someone … with plans / and the simple breath" that keeps them alive. This theme not only is pertinent in "Kindness" but also permeates much of Nye's work. Its reflection on her personal life as an Arab American is both unmistakable and intended.

Lines 21-22

In direct and precise language, lines 21 and 22 highlight the opposing poles of kindness and sorrow. They begin the third consecutive stanza that begins "Before you," but this stanza ties together the concrete images of the beginning of the poem—salt, broth, bus riders, maize, chicken, Indian, and white poncho—with more contemplative, philosophical aspects. Kindness and sorrow are parallel. Before one can "know kindness as the deepest thing inside," he or she must know that it has a real and formidable opposite: Sorrow is the "other deepest thing."

Lines 23-26

Lines 23 through 26 demonstrate how important it is to realize true sorrow before being able to understand true kindness. To say that one "must wake up with sorrow" implies how deep the feeling should be ingrained in a human being before he or she can appreciate the beauty of having sorrow lifted through kindness. In lines 24 through 26, Nye again relies on metaphor to convey the actual depth of sorrow's impact. The message is that everyday talk must be full of sorrow until "your voice / catches the thread of all sorrows," "thread" implying something connecting and growing. When one sees "the size of the cloth" that sorrow becomes, one knows how large a part it plays in the overall fabric of human life.

Lines 27-29

Lines 27 through 29, which begin the fourth and final stanza of "Kindness," mark a turning point in the tone and ultimate message of the poem. After all the examples of how bad ignorance, desolation, and sorrow can be, it is finally "only kindness that makes sense anymore." Kindness is tied to the simple, everyday things that the average human being can relate to: tying shoestrings, mailing letters, buying bread. The common occurrences listed may be misleading in their apparent simplicity. The actual message is that all of everyday life revolves around how people are treated on a regular basis. Sometimes the smaller things a person experiences, such as daily chores, are made possible only by the knowledge that somewhere out there someone else was kind to him or her that day.

Lines 30-32

In lines 30 through 32, Nye uses personification—the technique of bringing a concept or nonhuman thing to life by attributing to it a human form, human characteristics, or human behavior—to describe the relationship between kindness and the "you" in the poem. Kindness "raises its head / from the crowd of the world," implying its uniqueness in an otherwise cold and mean environment. Nye then gives kindness a strong and undeniable existence in human life: "It is I [emphasis added] you have been looking for." This line leaves no question about the importance of kindness in people's lives. Kindness purports itself to be the very thing that human beings are seeking.

Lines 33-34

The final two lines of the poem leave the reader with a positive thought, personifying kindness as a welcomed being in anyone's life. Kindness "goes with you everywhere," like a willing partner who aims only to please. At times it may be "like a shadow," something that follows a person around even when he or she is alone. At other times, kindness may be like "a friend," someone who has the person's best interests in mind. Regardless of its role at any given moment, kindness is conveyed as the perfect companion.

The poem does not actually end with line 34. One more word is added to give it a more specific identity: "Colombia." Even so, identifying a country in which "Kindness" was written or that inspired it does not dilute the relevance of the poem to any nation in the world.


Human Kindness

The most obvious theme in this poem is revealed in its title: Kindness is one of the most cherished and hard-to-come-by values of the human race. As the work ultimately claims, kindness is the only thing "that makes sense anymore." This conclusion is drawn from Nye's assessment of the negative observations she has made and her firm belief that good can triumph over bad.

"Kindness" is, essentially, a poem that speaks for itself. It is not mysterious or difficult to understand, and it uses simple, straightforward language to make its points clear. The central theme, however, is played out carefully in a series of both philosophical and graphic examples. For instance, Nye theoretically writes about feeling the "future dissolve" and about the "desolate … landscape … between the regions of kindness," but she also very specifically details bus riders "eating maize and chicken" and "the Indian in a white poncho" who "lies dead by the side of the road." This juxtaposition of theory and reality does not hinder the message of the poem but actually enhances its credibility in defining human kindness.

The very nature of kindness as a desirable yet sometimes elusive trait gives it a broad range of interpretations, especially when one is trying to pin it down to a certain definition. In philosophical terms, there may be a "tender gravity of kindness," or kindness may be the "deepest thing inside." In more direct terms, however, it may be the thing that "ties your shoes / and sends you out in the day to mail letters and purchase bread." This abrupt shift between the meditative and the practical demonstrates the multiple values of human kindness.

It is no secret that one of Nye's most critical concerns—in both her writing and her life in general—is to promote compassion and fairness throughout the various populations of the world. "Kindness" unmistakably advocates for deeper human sympathy among citizens of various countries, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or even placement within a local community. The unfortunate Indian depicted in the poem may well have died among his own people within his own town or village, but he is still unjustly ignored, as though his body is a foreign object that no one wants to acknowledge. Only kindness, the poem suggests, can prevent such wretched treatment of a fellow human being.

Balancing Opposites

A second theme in "Kindness" may not be as obvious as the first, but it is just as powerful. To grasp the full meaning and benefit of kindness, human beings must first comprehend its opposite: losing things. In doing so, one can find the delicate balance between what is truly good and what is truly bad. This idea is introduced in the first two lines, but only the subsequent specific examples bring it into clear focus.

What the "you" riding the bus must lose is the notion that the other riders will keep enjoying their maize and chicken endlessly instead of eventually reaching their less-than-desirable destinations in dilapidated homes or violent communities. What the more general "you" must learn is that no matter how pleasant or "tender" one's own life may be, somewhere in the world a forgotten soul "lies dead by the side of the road" and that he could just as easily "be you," if circumstances were only a bit different. This message is perhaps the strongest one in the poem regarding opposites: There is a very thin line between the haves and the have-nots. The former could quickly become the latter if events were to unfold a different way.

"Kindness" suggests that balancing opposites is more beneficial than simply choosing one thing and trying to squash the other. A person who decides to see only the good things in life and to ignore the bad is living with blinders on, and the real meaning of "good" is lost in a world of illusion and make-believe. On the other hand, if one accepts that bad and sorrowful aspects of life can carry as much weight as the wonderful, happy events, then the positive moments are all the more appreciated because of the very real possibility of the negative.


Contemporary Free Verse

The free-verse style of poetry began in the late nineteenth century with a group of French poets, including Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue, who balked at the long-held system of composing verse according to strict patterns of rhyme and meter. Their vers libre, or free verse, movement relaxed all "poetic" restrictions and allowed poets to use more natural language and voice to express common human concerns. Contemporary free verse simply takes the original free verse a step closer to even more relaxed language and voice as well as an anything-goes attitude about subjects and themes. In short, contemporary free-verse poets use direct, everyday language to address matters that affect them, regardless of how controversial the topics may be. The concentration is more on subject than on style.

Topics For Further Study

  • "Kindness" relies on a specific setting to give credence to its poignant message. Rewrite this poem basing it on your own community. Give descriptions that make the poem sound as though it is meant for your particular time and place. Emphasize the details that are crucial to your environment and that ultimately suggest the need for kindness.
  • Nye bases many of her poems and essays on the places to which she has traveled, both near and far away from her home in Texas. Make a class presentation on a place you have visited and talk about its differences from your own environment. Do you find it easy or difficult to speak objectively about the environment of the place you visited? Explain to the class why you find it one way or the other.
  • As a person of both American and Arab descent, Nye faces a particularly difficult task in blending reverence for the two cultures into her work and into her life in general, especially after September 11, 2001. Write an essay about a similar experience you have had in dealing with cultural differences and prejudices, either your own or those of an acquaintance.
  • If you were running for an important political office in Colombia, what would you concentrate on in your speeches to the Colombian people? Research the history of this nation and then present a campaign speech on important national matters. Consider points such as how Colombia has become known as one of the illegal drug capitals of the world as well as one of the countries most terrorized by insurgent groups. Why has this predominantly democratic country fallen prey to these groups over and over again? What will you do to help end the cycle?
  • Have you ever known of a person whose death seemed to affect no one? Write an essay on what that person's circumstances were or may have been, why he or she seemed discarded in the end, and how your own life may have been affected by this somber yet ignored passing.

Nye uses no rhyme scheme or specific meter in "Kindness," but she creates her own pattern of language within the work to give it a subtle rhythm. There are four stanzas of varying lengths, but the first three (lines 1 through 13, 14 through 20, and 21 through 26) begin with similar or matching words: "Before you know," "Before you learn," and "Before you know" again. Each opening line follows with the overall message about kindness: Before one understands what kindness is, one must understand what it is not. Although each stanza takes a different turn in how it supports the overall themes, Nye makes general but strong use of metaphor in all of them. From the "desolate … landscape … between the regions of kindness" through "tender gravity" to the "thread of all sorrows" that makes up the total "size of the cloth," each comparison provides an interesting and revealing definition of both kindness and its opposite.

The fourth stanza, lines 27 through 34, does not begin with the same words as the first three stanzas, but it is full of metaphor, more so than the others. Kindness is described in terms of personification, or attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects or concepts. In this case, kindness "ties your shoes / and sends you out into the day," as a loving parent may do for a child. Kindness also has a "head" to raise above the "crowd of the world" and to speak directly to "you": "It is I you have been looking for." Kindness is like a human being, and its characteristics are so vital to the poet that it actually becomes a human being.

Historical Context

Political Turmoil in Colombia

Only by the brief identifier at the end of "Kindness" in Different Ways to Pray can one attribute a specific time and place to both the setting and the inspiration of the poem. "(Colombia, 1978)" implies that this work resulted from one of the poet's many travels, in this case to South America. It is interesting that the date is omitted in the version of "Kindness" that appears in the later collection Words under the Words. This omission may simply be a matter of preference or change in editorial style, but it may also suggest that the message in the poem is timeless.

Despite the fact that Colombia has had three military takeovers and two civil wars in its history, the country has a long and enduring democratic tradition, marred sporadically by violent and effective insurgencies. During the mid-twentieth century, the second civil war cost nearly 300,000 lives and was resolved in the late 1950s with the formation of the National Front. This resolution called for a compromise between the warring conservative and liberal factions, the position of president rotating every four years between the two parties. The agreement allowed Colombia to prosper economically with increased exportation of goods such as coffee, oil, minerals, and fruit.

During the 1970s, Colombia suffered setbacks both politically and economically when a campaign of terrorism began. Various rebel groups attacked military leaders, government officials, and innocent civilians. Many outlaw groups became involved in drug trafficking and eventually made Colombia one of the world's major suppliers of cocaine. Since at least 1978, the main focus of the besieged government has been to defeat terrorist guerillas, drug lords, and reportedly Cuban-backed revolts. Both liberal and conservative leaders have shared the burden of ridding their country of violent insurgents who have weakened Colombia's overall economic and political stability. A once flourishing tourist trade has dwindled dramatically over the years, although some people, such as Nye, are willing to risk the dangers in order to experience the underlying beauty of both the land and its people.

Social Inequality in Colombia

A strict sense of class structure has existed in Colombia for centuries. The original racial groups that helped form the country—Indians, blacks, and whites—eventually melded into a mixture of these groups, adhering to a class system that dates to the one created by Spanish colonizers centuries ago.

The Spanish settlers found the native Colombian people relatively easy to conquer and take advantage of because the indigenous population was widely scattered and not united by a sense of community or shared destiny. As a result, the Indians and the black slaves brought by the Spaniards were readily cast as the lowest rung on the social ladder. Between a top and a bottom, however, there is always a middle rung, and Colombia's society eventually divided into four distinct classes that could easily be labeled by the late 1970s and early 1980s. The classes are labeled upper, middle, lower, and the masses.

White professionals dominate the upper class and traditionally hold the highest government positions as well as top careers in law, medicine, architecture, and university teaching. The middle class is made up largely of self-employed shopkeepers, clerks, and managers. These families are able to find adequate housing, food, medical attention, and a decent education for their children. The lower class typically consists of domestic servants, unskilled workers, taxi drivers, and various repair service people. Often, these families go without sufficient means to meet their housing, nutritional, medical, and educational needs.

The class distinctions in Colombia are similar to those in many other countries, and the lowest level suffers as greatly as that anywhere. In Colombia, impoverished Indians and blacks make up the "masses," and they, along with the lower class, constitute the majority of the population of the country. Even so, there is still a distinct class divide between the lower class and the masses. Whereas members of the lower class typically hold jobs and have an increasing level of political and social awareness, the masses usually live on the fringes of society, are largely illiterate, and lack job skills and employment. Their illness and death rates are high because they lack adequate nutrition and medical attention.

Because cocaine trafficking became a dominant industry for Colombia's illegal factions in the 1970s, it has also become a deadly yet attractive source of income for many of the country's poorest people. Members of the masses who resort to cultivating coca plants are often murdered by guerrilla groups if the planters refuse to sell to the group or if they sell to a rival gang vying for drug profits. As disturbing as they are, these facts may well account for the plight of the Indian in a white poncho, whose sorrowful death is apparently just as negligible as his life has been.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1970s: Colombia becomes one of the international centers for illegal drug production and trafficking. Drug cartels virtually control the country, which provides 75 percent of the world's cocaine.

    Today: The United States invests $3 billion into "Plan Colombia," a joint U.S.-Colombia coca antinarcotics plan, which started in 2000. Officials claim that as of 2005 the program has eradicated more than a million acres of coca plants, but Colombian drug traffickers still manage to supply 90 percent of the cocaine used in the United States—the same percentage supplied when the program began.
  • 1970s: Marxist guerrilla groups organize against the Colombian government, most notably, the May 19th Movement, the National Liberation Army, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. They plunge the country into violence and instability.

    Today: The United Nations declares that Colombia is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. More than two million people have been forced to leave their homes, and several Indian tribes are close to extinction. Colombia now has the third-largest displaced population in the world because of guerrilla violence and the fear its population endures on a daily basis.
  • 1970s: Andean Indians such as the Guambianos weave their own clothes, grow their own food, and glean a meager income from tourists, who are eventually driven away by guerrilla and paramilitary forces waging regular shoot-outs in the region. Eventually, the Indians resort to growing poppies for the illegal cocaine industry in order to make a living.

    Today: Colombian president Alvaro Uribe promises the Guambianos that the government is taking a tough approach in combating guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers and that the Indians will be paid well to destroy their poppy plants and return to legitimate farming. So far, unkept promises have resulted in the indigenous people's disillusionment in the government and, for some, a return to growing poppies for the drug lords who they know will pay for the effort.

Critical Overview

Nye's work has been highly critically acclaimed from the time her poems started to appear in print. Critics praise Nye's poetry, children's literature, and essays for their pertinent social and humanistic messages and the effectiveness of the direct, unadorned language with which Nye conveys them. Although her style is straightforward and her themes readily understood, Nye is not considered a simple or unsophisticated writer. The opposite is true: Her talent lies in presenting profound and complex human emotion and behavior in a refreshingly uncomplicated manner.

In an article for American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, the reviewer Daria Donnelly notes that "Different Ways to Pray attends to human landscapes" and that "Nye's attention to the simple acts of human communion wherever and however they occur springs from a generosity and acuity forged by a sense of her own multifaceted identity." A poem such as "Kindness" certainly supports Donnelly's assertion, and its reappearance in the later collection attests to its continuing relevance.

In a review of Words under the Words for Western American Literature, Bert Almon claims that "Nye is one of the best poets of her generation" and that she is "always vigilant: the rhythms are sharp, the eye is keen. She excels at the unexpected and brilliant detail that underwrites the poetic vision." Almon goes on to say that "the title of her collection, Words under the Words, expresses a confidence in ultimate meaningfulness of our descriptions of reality. If we listen, we can hear the inner meaning." These comments are typical. As much as Nye continues to focus an ear on the pain, sorrow, kindness, and joy of humanity, her readers focus on what she hears.


Pamela Steed Hill

Pamela Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in literary journals, and is an editor for a university publications department. In the following essay, she discusses how "Kindness" is one of the most apt examples of Nye's works because it adheres to a core principle of both the poet's writing and her daily life: The "words under the words" are of utmost importance.

When a poem from a first collection is chosen to appear in the poet's later volume of selected works, the implication is that the poem is worthy of an encore appearance. "Kindness" is one such poem. When another work from the first collection not only makes a second appearance in the selected works but also shares its title with that of the entire book, this poem must carry thematic significance or divulge some idea of the author's overall message. "The Words under the Words" is that kind of poem.

Nye is completely forthcoming about her vision of how the world should be and how human beings should treat one another. A deep concern for humanity lies at the base of nearly all she writes and all she does. She also knows, however, that not every vision or every hope or every human experience is always plainspoken and accessible. Sometimes one must pay keen attention to seemingly insignificant occurrences or conversations in order to discover and learn from the importance that lies beneath. This is the case for everyone—not just poets and other writers—as Nye points out in an interesting story about a man she met on a bus on September 11, 2001.

In an interview with Angela Elam for New Letters, Nye talks about her long bus ride home after the terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., had closed airports across the nation. Her seatmate was a man who had been released from prison that day and who knew nothing of the attacks. The man spoke mostly to himself but occasionally commented to Nye that he did not remember buses being so crowded. Elam's response to this story is to say, "What a wonderful thing to have happen to a writer. That's almost something you couldn't even invent." Nye's reply sets the interviewer straight: "I think they happen to everybody; writers are just in the habit of listening to them in a certain way or believing there's something to hear, to pay attention to." In other words, writers look for what is not visible on the outside and listen to what is said in silence: the words under the words.

"Kindness" is full of these kinds of words, and its premise is based on discovering one thing by examining another. This fundamental, philosophical idea is inspired in part by Nye's beloved Arab grandmother, Sitti Khadra, who lived to be 106 years old. This woman has great influence on the poet's life, even though the two spent little time together because the grandmother lived on the opposite side of the world. The poem "The Words under the Words" bears the dedication "for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem" and is a reflection of the grandmother's life in Palestine and the wisdom she imparted to the poet. Sitti Khadra, however, was probably unaware of her tremendous influence on her Americanized granddaughter.

In "The Words under the Words," Nye attributes the notion of listening for hidden messages to the teachings of her grandmother. The following lines acknowledge human inadequacies when it comes to true understanding: "She knows the spaces we travel through, / the messages we cannot send—our voices are short / and would get lost on the journey." The final lines of the poem quote the grandmother directly: "'Answer, if you hear the words under the words—/ otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges, / difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.'"

In "Kindness," the world is definitely full of rough edges—so rough that a man can lie dead by the side of the road without anyone bothering to cover his body, much less give it a proper burial. It is a world where people ride buses to and from their squalid homes, eating their simple meals along the way. It is a world where the future can "dissolve in a moment" and where the landscape "between the regions of kindness" is bleak and barren. It is also a world where the good and the kind are matched equally by the bad and the mean-spirited. This world is the one Nye finds in her travels to Colombia, but on a deeper level it is a world that spans the globe.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Nye's work as an editor demonstrates the same tireless dedication to promoting tolerance and humanity throughout the world as her own writing does. This Same Sky (1992) is a collection of the poems of 129 poets from sixty-eight countries with an overall theme of how much human beings have in common, regardless of different physical environments, ethnicities, and religions.
  • Edited by Nathalie Handal, The Poetry of Arab Women (2001) is a collection of the work of more than eighty women poets translated from the original Arabic, French, English, and other languages. From work by Nye to that of relatively unknown American graduate students, this volume presents a number of views that share a common voice.
  • Arabs in America: Building a New Future (1999) is Michael Suleiman's collection of twenty-one scholars' writings on the status of Arab Americans in North America. Suleiman's overall contention is that this ethnic group is largely ignored, except when words like "terrorism" and "extremism" come up, yet Arab Americans have contributed to Western culture for centuries. The writers work in a variety of fields, including anthropology, economics, history, law, literature, political science, and sociology.
  • Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (1989), by Jack Weatherford, is a thought-provoking and easily read account of the many "gifts" that native peoples of all the Americas have given to the entire world. From gold and silver works, agricultural techniques, and medicine to economics and the concept of personal freedom, the contributions of Indians from North, South, Central, and Latin America are crucial to the development of cultures and governments worldwide.

Although the message in "Kindness" is obvious, its language is compelling, if not complex. Nye forces the reader to look beneath the surface of the words to find a more profound meaning of kindness than one may have ever considered. The idea that human beings should be kind to one another is simple enough, but the poet makes the point by encouraging readers to take a look at what kindness is not, to reach a better understanding of it by concentrating on its opposite.

In the first stanza of the poem, lines 1 through 13, a deep sense of loss is the opposite of kindness. From money to the future itself, one must experience losing things in order to "know what kindness really is." This approach provides a much more interesting perspective than simply trying to define kindness in typical terms. For instance, one may say that volunteering in the community, making donations to charities, and mowing the lawn for an elderly neighbor are all acts of kindness, and arguably everyone would agree. When people are challenged to think about all of their tomorrows fading away "like salt in a weakened broth," however, the notion of such tragedy makes the thought of kindness all the more vital. Most human beings can understand how wonderful it is to have something good happen—no matter how small—when times are otherwise difficult to handle.

Later in the poem, it is profound sorrow that is the opposite of kindness. From the concrete physical description of the Indian's body along the roadside to the more metaphoric treatment of sorrow in the third stanza, lines 21 through 26, the message again is that kindness is more explicitly defined in terms of what is not normally associated with it. Sadness and desolation can darken the human spirit as much as kindness can brighten it. It is fitting, then, to consider how low one may go in order to appreciate how high one can rebound. In this stanza, Nye suggests that people need to make sorrow a part of their daily routines so that they can grasp its full presence. "You must wake up with sorrow" implies the depth that grief and anguish must reach inside the human being in order for one to take kindness to the same depth. When both the good and the bad are capable of going the same distance, it is up to the individual to decide which will exert the greatest influence over his or her life.

In the last stanza of "Kindness," lines 27 through 34, Nye makes heavy use of personification to explain the importance of kindness in human life. She also uses it to stress the need for finding the words under the words—those that may go unnoticed if one pays attention only to what is spoken instead of what is not spoken. If kindness is the thing that "ties your shoes / and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread," what are these words really saying about the role of goodness in everyday human life? More important, where would humanity be if charity and compassion were largely nonexistent? Certainly, the idea in the poem is that the role of goodness lies at the very base of all people do, including the simple tasks of daily living.

Nye claims that her grandmother, Sitti Khadra, acknowledged "the spaces we travel through" and "the messages we cannot send." But the elderly woman also understood that if the human race is content to let such negative impulses guide human behavior, then the world's population is doomed "with a lot of rough edges" and "our pockets full of stones." The better solution, she suggests, is to "Answer, if you hear the words under the words." Answering is precisely what Nye tries to do with the poem "Kindness."

The major theme of "Kindness" is obvious, but the fact that the message is made more subtle by the enticement to look deeper into it suggests that the overall idea is more complex than it appears. Nye's dedication to humanistic affairs is well known. Her ability to relay that sentiment in such an intriguing manner speaks not only to her abilities as a poet but also to her unwavering commitment to humanity in general.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill , Critical Essay on "Kindness," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Anna Maria Hong

Anna Maria Hong has published poems in numerous journals and is the editor of the fiction and memoir anthology Growing Up Asian American (1993). In the following essay, she discusses how Nye uses metaphor and personification to define what kindness is and how it is achieved.

Nye's "Kindness" is a philosophical poem that defines kindness as a way of living life. In the poem, Nye proposes that rather than being a random and discrete act, kindness is a mode of being arrived at through a series of basic human experiences. The poet argues that kindness is also the inevitable conclusion of feeling one's life deeply, as she elucidates three essential steps to achieving kindness. Throughout the poem, Nye uses metaphor and personification to emphasize her ideas.

Nye begins each of the first three stanzas with similar phrases, each stating that one must know or learn something before knowing what kindness is. In the first stanza, the speaker proposes loss as a prerequisite to understanding what kindness is. The poem opens with the speaker saying, "Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things, / feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth." In these lines, Nye suggests that a sense of great loss is necessary to knowing what kindness is. The simile "like salt in a weakened broth" powerfully conveys a sense of sudden and final dissipation. The speaker follows this line by adding that one must lose everything in order to understand how bleak life is in the absence of kindness. The speaker notes that one should lose those things that one took precautions to save.

In line 9 of this opening stanza, the speaker defines kindness as a kind of place, as she refers to "regions of kindness." She concludes the stanza by comparing the feeling of loss without kindness to riding a bus that you think will never stop, as you believe "the passengers eating maize and chicken / will stare out the window forever." This metaphor underscores the sense of helplessness and isolation that accompanies loss, with the words "maize and chicken" conveying the sense of riding a bus in a foreign country. The feeling of being different in a strange land is compounded by the fact that people going about their daily business do not pay attention to one another but instead look out the window. In this opening stanza, Nye establishes the idea that a sense of intense loss without relief is the first step toward kindness.

In the next stanza, Nye asserts that empathy is the second prerequisite to knowing kindness. In lines 14 to 16, she continues the bus metaphor, as the speaker states, "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." By describing it as "tender gravity," the poet introduces the idea of kindness as a powerfully attractive force. She also casts kindness once again as a place that one travels toward, as on a journey in an unfamiliar land.

Following her description of the stark, somewhat transcendent image of the dead Indian in a white poncho, the speaker says that the reader must see how that person could be him or her and how the Indian was once also a person "who journeyed through the night with plans / and the simple breath that kept him alive." In these lines, Nye suggests that one must feel empathy in order to feel kindness. Since the Indian in the white poncho is an iconic figure, presumably different from most readers of the poem, the poet also implies that one must learn to be empathetic to all people, no matter how distant they seem from oneself. In particular, she proposes that one must understand that death comes to all of us and that the knowledge of one's own death is also a prerequisite to achieving kindness. She suggests that this knowledge paves the way to recognizing others as fellow travelers in life.

The experiences of loss, empathy, and recognition of death as a universal experience are connected with the final prerequisite to embracing kindness, sorrow, which is the subject of the third stanza. In lines 21 to 22, the speaker invokes the opening refrain of each stanza by saying, "Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing." Here, Nye asserts that sorrow or an intense sadness is the deepest or most basic part of human experience. Since sorrow follows loss and empathy with another's death, the poet suggests that sorrow comes from experiencing loss in a deep and profound way.

The speaker goes on to personify sorrow as someone who must be lived with every day and spoken to until "your voice / catches the thread of all sorrows / and you see the size of the cloth." In these hopeful lines, Nye implies that by really grappling with sorrow, by experiencing one's sense of loss and sadness fully, one can break through and feel how universal suffering is. One can see that one's own sorrow is part of a larger scheme, whose size is all-encompassing. By personifying sorrow and using everyday images such as thread and cloth, Nye also suggests that sorrow is not an aberration but a part of normal daily life.

In the fourth and final stanza, Nye concludes the poem by casting kindness as the inevitable outcome of the experiences of loss, empathy, and sorrow. In line 27, the speaker says that after living through these things, "Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore." In the previous stanza, Nye intertwined kindness with sorrow by positing both as the deepest human emotions, the things that remain inside in the wake of loss and death. Here, she asserts that after recognizing the inevitability of one's own death and the universality of sorrow, one will logically conclude that kindness is the only mode of being that makes life bearable.

Here again, she personifies kindness, this time as a force that animates people to go about their daily tasks, as kindness "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." In personifying kindness, Nye describes it as a type of salvation and emphasizes kindness as a crucial aspect of humanity. Rather than describing a simple act with no motives, she portrays kindness as the ultimate companion against loneliness, a way of being that abates the sense of helplessness and desolation we would otherwise feel. She argues that by embracing kindness, and only by embracing it, we are never alone.

Although the poet never spells out what kindness is, she suggests that it is a mixture of all the things she illuminates in the course of the poem: the recognition of personal loss, the inevitability of one's death, and the magnitude of sorrow that results in empathy. She defines kindness not as selfless act but rather as a rational mode of living, as only generosity and gentleness toward others can provide a sense of solace in our solitary journeys through life.

Source: Anna Maria Hong, Critical Essay on "Kindness," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Ibis Gomez-Vega

In the following essay, Gomez-Vega explores how Shihab Nye uses storytelling in her poetry to evoke themes such as family connections and displacement.

When Naomi Shihab Nye says in "For Lost and Found Brothers" that "Facts interest me less than the trailing smoke of stories" (Words under the Words), the essence of her work becomes clear. As a poet she is, at heart, a storyteller, one who focuses on the lives of everyday people, especially her own relatives, to understand the world around her. She is neither a "New Formalist" nor a "Language" poet, the terms that define the work of some of the most critically revered contemporary poets. Instead, she writes free verse in what is, by most standards, fairly accessible language. Like most poets, Shihab Nye is enamoured of words, but her free verse poems tell stories which seem to emerge from that "boundary [that] becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond" (5) that Homi K. Bhabha defines in The Location of Culture. Often, the stories become a tool for survival, the only way to make sense of difficult moments in a harsh world, and nowhere is this more evident than in "How Palestinians Keep Warm," a poem about the subtle changes that have taken place in the lives of contemporary Palestinians who huddle together in a war-torn city. The poet says, "I know we need to keep warm here on earth / and when your shawl is as thin as mine is, you tell stories" (Red Suitcase 26).

Naomi Shihab Nye's first collection of poems, Different Ways to Pray (1980), marks the beginning of her exploration of what will become recurrent themes through the body of her work. Her concern with family connections is the subject of many of her poems because, as she states in Fuel (1998), "If you tuck the name of a loved one / under your tongue too long / without speaking it / it becomes blood," so "No one sees / the fuel that feeds you" ("Hidden"). The family must be acknowledged; it must be recognized, but so must the fact that families have been torn asunder by the displacement created by war. For this reason, the sense of loss so prevalent in the work of exile or immigrant writers also runs through Shihab Nye's poetry even though she is herself not an exiled poet.

Born to a Palestinian father and a mother of European ancestry, Naomi Shihab Nye was born and raised on a farm in St. Louis where she learned to love animals and appreciate her father's love for the land. At the age of twelve, she spent a year in Palestine getting to know her father's family, an experience that filled her with a deep sense of belonging and, thereby, displacement. Lisa Suhair Majaj points out that Shihab Nye's poetry "explores the markers of cross-cultural complexity, moving between her Palestinian and American heritages" because Shihab Nye's poems document the differences as well as the similarities between two very divergent peoples, although Suhair Majaj also claims that Shihab Nye "is heir to an Arab essence passed down across generations." Regardless of her "Arab essence," Naomi Shihab Nye's work lies well within the American tradition of story-telling poets like Robert Frost.

Whether she is writing about her father's Palestinian family or her own connections with people in other parts of the world, Shihab Nye's poems are acquainted with the pain of displaced people. In "Brushing Live," she writes about an unexpected meeting between her father and a Palestinian man in Alexandria.

   In a shop so dark he had to blink twice
   an ancient man sunk low on a stool and said,
   'You talk like the men who lived in the world
   when I was young.' Wouldn't say more,
   till my father mentioned Palestine
   and the gentleman rose, both arms out, streaming
   cheeks. 'I have stopped saying it. So many years.'
   My father held him there, held Palestine, in the dark,
   at the corners of two honking streets.
   He got lost coming back to our hotel.
   (Red Suitcase)

The encounter is awkward and casual, but it taps at the pain of the exiled, the displaced, the pain of a people adrift in a violent world. Gregory Orfalea, when asked to discuss the Palestinian connection in Shihab Nye's work, points out that "her work is faithful to the minute, but essential tasks of our lives, the luminous in the ordinary."

Because so much of her work harks back to her memories of the Shihab family home in Palestine, a picture of her Palestinian grandmother, Sitti Khadra, graces the cover and half title page of Words under the Words, a volume that brings together three of her early books: Different Ways to Pray (1980), Hugging the Jukebox (1982), and Yellow Glove (1986). The photograph was taken by Michael Nye, Naomi Shihab's Swedish American husband, which seems appropriate because much of Shihab Nye's work focuses on the moments recovered from family connections. She writes in Never in a Hurry that when she visits Palestine, "feelings crowd in on" her, and she reasons that "maybe this is what it means to be in your genetic home. That you will feel on fifty levels at once, the immediate as well as the level of blood, the level of uncles,… weddings and graves, the babies who didn't make it, level of the secret and unseen." She tells herself that "maybe this is heritage, that deep well that gives us more than we deserve. Each time I write or walk or think, I drop a bucket in."

The influence of the Shihab family on the Palestinian American poet evolves through the years. In "My Father and the Figtree," one learns about the time when the poet, at age six, eats a fig and shrugs, unaware of what the taste of a fig means to her Palestinian father:

   'That's not what I'm talking about!' he said,
   'I'm talking about a fig straight from the earth—
   gift of Allah!—on a branch so heavy it touches the ground.
   I'm talking about picking the largest fattest sweetest fig
   in the world and putting it in my mouth.'
   (Here he'd stop and close his eyes.)
   (Words under the Words)

The six-year-old child, raised in a country where figs are exotic, not as common as apples or even oranges, fails to understand her Palestinian father's appreciation for the fruit, even if the taste of figs functions in the poem like Proust's madeleine to bring back the past. The father's longing for the memory of the fig's taste reiterates the poet's concern with her father's displacement and her own sense of inadequacy as a Palestinian who does not share her father's memories.

In "The Words under the Words," Shihab Nye remembers her grandmother, Sitti Khadra, who lived north of Jerusalem and impressed her with her silence and wisdom. Because she lives in a wartorn country, "my grandmother's voice says nothing can surprise her. / Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby. / She knows the spaces we travel through, / the messages we cannot send" (Words). For the grandmother, affected by war, the one constant is Allah. Her "eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death…. / He is her first thought, what she really thinks of His name." The grandmother reminds the poet to

   'Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
   otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
   difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.'

Her grandmother's words remind her to look for meaning in life, to look for the words under the words, which is exactly what the life of this poet is about, creating a context for understanding through story telling.

Because meaning can only spring from what she knows, Naomi Shihab Nye also writes about what it means to be "different" in America. Her most poignant poem on this subject is "Blood," published in Yellow Glove in 1986. In it, she remembers how

   Years before, a girl knocked,
   wanted to see the Arab.
   I said we didn't have one.
   After that, my father told me who he was,
   'Shihab'—'shooting star'—
   a good name, borrowed from the sky.
   Once I said, 'When we die, we give it back?'
   He said that's what a true Arab would say.

That she tells the girl that they "didn't have" an Arab in the house reiterates Shihab Nye's own sense of inadequacy. Although she shares her father's Palestinian ancestry, she does not recognize it as a marker.

Although the child in the poem does not know that she does in fact have an Arab in the house, the adult poet refuses to forget him or her own connection to his ancestry. In the same poem, Shihab Nye confronts the disturbing news emerging from the Palestinian struggle for self determination.

   I call my father, we talk around the news.
   It is too much for him,
   neither of his two languages can reach it.
   I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
   to plead with the air:
   Who calls anyone civilized?
   Where can the crying heart graze?
   What does a true Arab do now?

The Arab American who can see both sides of the story in the Israeli/Palestinian struggle is torn between her desire for justice and her love for her ancestral country. The struggle, however, leads the poet to recognize her ethnicity and her own place as an "other" in America.

In "Speaking Arabic," a short essay in Never in a Hurry, Shihab Nye ponders the need for ethnic identity as she wonders why she could not "forget the earnest eyes of the man who said to [her] in Jordan, 'Until you speak Arabic, you will not understand pain.'" She considers his statement "ridiculous" and remembers how he goes on to say "something to do with an Arab carrying sorrow in the back of the skull that only language cracks." As in the case of her father's earlier longing for the taste of figs, the man's statement leads her to remember yet another man's statement when,

At a neighborhood fair in Texas, somewhere between the German Oom-pah Sausage stand and the Mexican Gorditas booth, I overheard a young man say to his friend, 'I wish I had a heritage. Sometimes I feel—so lonely for one.' And the tall American trees were dangling their thick branches right down over my head.

Words from a zealot and from someone who has lost his heritage are juxtaposed in an attempt to understand what it means to have a heritage, to come from a place so deeply ingrained in the mind that figs savored in childhood retain their taste forever.

As an Arab American, Naomi Shihab Nye writes in English even as she frets over her inability to understand Arabic as well as she would like.

   I thought pain had no tongue. Or every tongue
   at once, supreme translator, sieve. I admit my
   shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging
   its rich threads without understanding
   how to weave the rug … I have no gift.
   The sound, but not the sense. ("Arabic," Red Suitcase)

She associates speaking Arabic with her father and with relatives who live far away, and, probably because she is a poet who values words, she wants the gift of that language.

The power of words to renew and uplift the spirit is another theme that runs through Naomi Shihab Nye's work, and it is manifested in her appreciation for the work of other poets. Through the years, she has written many poems to her mentor and teacher, William Stafford, of whom she says in "Bill's Beans" that "He left the sky over Oregon and fluent trees. / He gave us our lives that were hiding under our feet, / saying, You know what to do" (Fuel). Shihab Nye also maintains close relationships with many contemporary poets, In "You Know Who You Are," words from one of these poets sustain her. She claims that "Because sometimes I live in a hurricane of words / and not one of them can save me. / Your poems come in like a raft, logs tied together, / they float." Then, after observing the behavior of fathers and sons together and wandering "uselessly in the streets I claim to love," she feels "the precise body of your poems beneath me, / like a raft, I felt words as something portable again, / a cup, a newspaper, a pin" (Words under the Words). Words move her, sustain her, connect her to the world in ways that only words can explain, which is why she attempts to teach one of her students in "Valentine for Ernest Mann" that

   poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
   they are sleeping. They are the shadows
   drifting across our ceilings the moment
   before we wake up. What we have to do
   is live in a way that lets us find them.
   (Red Suitcase)

For Naomi Shihab Nye, poems hide everywhere, and her task as a poet has been to write ordinary poems in an accessible language, what Vernon Shetley calls the "colloquial free-verse lyric that occupies the mainstream." There is no "'unreadability'" as "a goal in itself" in Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry. If anything, her work aims for clarity and achieves it because the poet herself is consciously trying to reach readers and non-readers alike, anyone who can make the time to hear a good story.

Living "in a way that lets us find" the poems suggests that people, as poets or simply as citizens of this world, must live a life committed to other people and all of creation. This is another one of Shihab Nye's themes, and one that speaks volumes for the soul of this poet. In "Kindness," she reminds her readers that

   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 …
   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 …
   (Words under the Words)

Kindness emanates from Naomi Shihab Nye's work. The five volumes of her work reveal a deep understanding of our weaknesses, our humanity, as the stories that she creates define her ties to a people who endow her with an appreciation for heritage and a strong sense of what she has lost and what she has gained as she defines her own place in the world.

Source: Ibis Gomez-Vega, "The Art of Telling Stories in the Poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye," in MELUS, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 245-52.

Bert Almon

In the following review of Words under the Words, Shihab Nye's collection of poetry, and Never in a Hurry, her collection of essays, Almon asserts that "readers will find similar satisfactions in both books: memorable language, lively imagination, and deep human sympathies."

Naomi Shihab Nye's selected poems, Words under the Words, represents her first three books: Different Ways to Pray, Hugging the Jukebox (a National Poetry Series selection for 1982), and Yellow Glove. Nye is one of the best poets of her generation, a fact underlined by her prominence in two recent PBS series on poetry: The Language of Life and The United States of Poetry. Readers can find a very full selection of her work in Words Under the Words.

The most popular poetic mode of our time, the free verse lyric rooted in personal experience, has come in for criticism because it is so often practiced without commitment. This poet is always vigilant: the rhythms are sharp, the eye is keen. She excels at the unexpected and brilliant detail that underwrites the poetic vision. The image of a skillet appears in three of the poems, and that seems typical of Nye's perceptions: a notoriously solid and practical object, brought into poetry. Her vision takes in the ordinary and extraordinary: there is a poem here about sending a beloved cat in the cargo hold of a plane, and others that focus with clarity and anguish on the intifada. Nye has a Palestinian-born father, and she explores her loyalties with great tact, revealing the rich humanity of people who are often demonized. She has other loyalties: to the American side of her family, to the formative scenes of her childhood, and to the pressures and dramas of the people in her largely Mexican-American neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas. Like William Stafford, whose poems she admires, she is a writer with allegiances. Allegiances, not prejudices or animosities.

For all her interest in other people, one theme that runs through the poems is the formation of the self and the subtleties of its development. Here she shares a great deal with William Stafford. For both poets, "world" is a favorite term, and they avoid narcissism by stressing the ways that the mind of the individual makes its way in the world: being nurtured or injured, reaching out in sympathy or closing in a little to protect itself. Nye and Stafford both favor reaching out, but they dramatize a whole range of responses. They invite us to understand our own stories by telling theirs with memorable details. One of the best poems, "White Silk," takes off from a Zen meditation—"Try to be a piece of white silk." After a stunning series of dream images of silk, we find the poet in a general store, examining a bolt of white silk with smooth brown lines at the creases: we return to the world of iron skillets, but feel extended by the imaginative journey. The title of her collection, Words Under the Words, expresses a confidence in ultimate meaningfulness of our descriptions of reality. If we listen, we can hear the inner meaning.

The essays in Never in a Hurry share much with the poetry. They have the openness to experience and the flexibility of development that we value in the essay form. The variety of the book is one of its pleasures: the essays range from long narratives to vignettes to prose poems. The places of her subtitle include Palestine, Oahu, Rajasthan, Maine, and Oregon. She is most compelling when she writes about her complex heritage. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, and makes those diverse places familiar to us.

Perhaps the finest essays are the ones dealing with the Palestinian village where her father began his life: the figure of her grandmother, who died at 106 and lived her whole life in one place, is unforgettable. It is not easy to speak for Palestinian villagers in present-day America. Nye conveys the reality of their lives, practicing a politics of sympathy—we can surely think of "politics" in a broad sense, as the ways in which people deal with one another in this world. The essays about San Antonio remind us that there are many villages, some of them within large American cities. She writes about the poor and the immigrants in those villages without condescension, because she has a conviction of their value.

Readers will find similar satisfactions in both books: memorable language, lively imagination, and deep human sympathies.

Source: Bert Almon, "Poetry of the American West," in Western American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 265-66.


Almon, Bert, "Poetry of the American West," in Western American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 265-66.

Donnelly, Daria, "Nye, Naomi Shihab," in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, 2d ed., Vol. 3, edited by Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf, St. James Press, 2000, pp. 212-13.

Elam, Angela, "The Subject Is Life: An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye," in New Letters, Vol. 69, Nos. 2/3, 2003, p. 147.

Nye, Naomi Shihab, "Kindness," in Different Ways to Pray: Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, Breitenbush Publications, 1980, p. 55.

―――――, "Kindness," in Words under the Words: Selected Poems, Eighth Mountain Press, 1995, pp. 42-43.

―――――, "The Words under the Words," in Words under the Words: Selected Poems, Eighth Mountain Press, 1995, pp. 36-37.

Further Reading

Bushnell, David, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself, University of California Press, 1993.

Bushnell contends that there is much more to Colombia than the drug trafficking, kidnappings, and terrorism that have dominated the news about the country over the past few decades. While acknowledging the prolific cocaine trade, violence, and unjust class system, Bushnell highlights a steady economic growth, a democratic government, and Colombia's artists and writers.

McBryde, John, Elaine Smokewood, and Harbour Winn, "Honoring Each Moment: An Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye," in Humanities Interview, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 1, 14-17.

In this lengthy interview, Nye focuses on the important role that poetry plays in her everyday life. As the title suggests, she contends that poetry has the ability to slow down people's daily lives if they will take the time to read a little and to pay attention to and "honor" each moment as it comes.

Nye, Naomi Shihab, Never in a Hurry, University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

This collection of autobiographical essays provides a solid look at Nye's perspective on her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. From her Arab American heritage through living in Jerusalem as a teenager to settling in Texas as a wife, mother, and poet, these writings offer many interesting insights on the author.

―――――, Yellow Glove, Breitenbush Publications, 1986.

Several of the poems from this volume are included in Words under the Words, and the overall theme of the work is closely tied to that of the later collection. Nye contemplates the tragedy of a world in which people hate one another without even knowing one another. She addresses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict specifically in some of the poems, calling for peace, kindness, and humanity in very inhumane times and places.


views updated May 23 2018



Beneficence denotes the practice of good deeds. In contemporary ethics, the principle of beneficence usually signifies an obligation to benefit others or to seek their good. It is a principle of major importance in bioethics and has been prominent in the codes of physicians since antiquity.

Beneficence and Benevolence

Beneficence as a principle that guides decisions should be distinguished from the virtue that motivates actors. TheOxford English Dictionary defines "beneficence" as "doing good, the manifestation of benevolence, or kindly feeling" (emphasis added). This definition bespeaks the etymology of both terms. Beneficence is derived from the Latin bene (well; from bonus, good) and facere (to do), whereas benevolence is rooted in bene and volens (a strong wish or intention) (Partridge). Philosophers who emphasize a more rationalist approach, calculated to guide principled choices, tend to endorse beneficence. Those who see ethics as primarily concerned with virtue, character, and the psychological dimensions of the moral life emphasize benevolence.

David Hume, for example, conceived of benevolence as one of the instincts originally implanted in human nature. Like Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and other eighteenth-century English-speaking philosophers, Hume was not so much concerned with ethical problem solving as with describing the role and place of benevolence in the moral topography of human beings. Adam Smith used the term beneficence, but employed it to describe the virtue of goodwill, and saw it as a moral passion rather than a principle. Of concern to all these philosophers was a task set for them by Thomas Hobbes a century earlier.

Hobbes set the modern polemical context for discussions not only of beneficence and benevolence but also of ethics more generally. His moral philosophy was determinist, denying any capacity for choice based on values, and relativist, denying any independent reference for the terms good and evil: Liberty he saw as merely the ability to enact one's desires, not freedom to deliberate and choose. Good and evil simply denoted human appetites and aversions. "Will" was just another desire, not a distinctive moral capacity. Obviously such a philosophy was no place for beneficence as a principle of choice or benevolence as a motivation for the good of others. Ethics devolves into a deterministic egoism. Butler, Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, in a variety of ways, took as their task a survey of the moral psyche, with special regard for the place of benevolence as something innate or natural to human life.

Unless Hobbes's egoistic portrait is correct, any well-rounded view of ethics will include ways of describing and evaluating both the motivational and character-laden aspects, and the decisional, action-oriented elements of ethics— that is, both benevolence and beneficence.

A principle of beneficence can be broadly or narrowly defined. William Frankena views beneficence as an inclusive principle involving elements of refraining from inflicting harm and preventing or removing evil, as well as an obligation actively to promote good. James Childress adopts Frankena's elements but reclassifies them according to two distinct principles: nonmaleficence, the obligation not to inflict harm; and beneficence, the obligations to prevent harm, to remove harm or evil, and positively to promote good. This refinement has the merit of following an intuitive division between refraining and active doing. It elucidates why refraining from harm is usually seen as a universal duty to others, while actively promoting good or helping others is typically seen as a less stringent obligation and often as resulting from specific role obligations (being a parent or a doctor) or contractual agreements. A broader-ranging sense of beneficence is, nevertheless, endorsed by some philosophers. For example, in The Right and the Good, W. D. Ross claimed that duties of beneficence are incurred because of "the mere fact that there are other human beings in the world whose condition we can make better …" (p. 21).

Relation to Utility

Beneficence has natural affinities with a principle of utility. Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, for example, claim that promoting good always involves a calculation of what harms might also be incurred. A principle of utility is a way to assess harms and benefits. In his Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill asserted in 1863 that the measure of "good" by which all actions are to be judged is whether they promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Mill saw his principle of utility as a systematic expression of the teaching of Jesus, for example, as embodied in the "golden rule."

When defined through Mill's utility principle, beneficence becomes vulnerable to two criticisms frequently leveled at utilitarianism. The first is the problem of adequacy. A focus on beneficence as the promotion of happiness, to the exclusion of other kinds of goods and obligations, seems too narrow. People value things other than happiness, however broadly defined. Promoting the happiness of others can conflict with treating them fairly or respecting them as persons. The second problem is idealism. For Mill at least, utilitarianism presented a stringent requirement. "As between his own happiness and that of others utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator" (1979, p. 16). To count the good of strangers equally with our own good, or that of our families or friends, seems saintly and perhaps impossible to achieve.

These problems have led some philosophers to question utilitarianism as a system but also to see beneficence as only one principle among others, and as usually (if not always) an imperfect or supererogatory duty. While some principle of utility is necessary to enact beneficence, it need not be Mill's rendition. A utility principle that recognized a variety of goods would at least moderate the force of the criticisms above.

Beneficence and Autonomy

How beneficence is put into practice depends on how it is modified by other principles. Especially important in this regard is respect for autonomy or self-determination. Another way to put this is to ask whose notion of good will be definitive. Respect for autonomy means that good will be defined by the recipient of the action rather than the agent. Beneficence not so defined leads to paternalism, in which the beneficent actor overrides or ignores the recipient's ideas of good and imposes his or her own. The history of medical ethics is largely (but not entirely) a history of paternalistic beneficence. In the mid-twentieth century, consistent challenges arose to beneficent paternalism through assertions of patient rights. Defenders of simple paternalism in healthcare relationships are now rare, and most ethicists would agree with Erich Loewy that paternalistic actions generally represent a "caricature" rather than a natural extension of beneficence.

Autonomy as a moral principle is historically rooted in freedom as a political principle, to which John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690) gave definitive expression. Freedom, Locke asserted, is not license "but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary rule of another, but freely follow his own" (p. 32). The eighteenth-century monument to autonomy is the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Whereas Locke was concerned to protect individuals from the power of the state, Kant focused on freedom of the will. His "practical imperative" requires that others be treated as ends in themselves and never only as a means. For Kant this respect for the moral freedom of others was grounded in a recognition of their rational nature. In bioethics this raises the difficult issue of when and to what extent the rational capacities of patients are compromised and in which cases autonomy should give way to medical beneficence.

The grounds for limiting beneficence through respect for autonomy were most powerfully stated by John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty (first published in 1859) he cautioned against supposing that the principle of liberty necessitates a "selfish indifference." Indeed, he asserted, "there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others." But, he continued, "disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good than whips and scourges, either of the literal or of the metaphorical sort" (p. 74).

While advocacy for autonomy as the preeminent principle of medical ethics was powerful during the 1970s and 1980s, there are still substantial voices for a beneficencebased theory. Edmund Pellegrino and David Thomasma argue that "medicine as a human activity is of necessity a form of beneficence" (p. 32). Rather than espousing the older traditions of paternalism, however, they argue for an enlarged beneficence, "beneficence-in-trust"—a non-rightsbased approach that includes respect for autonomy but emphasizes a fiduciary grounding for doctor–patient encounters. This approach has an advantage over singleprinciple approaches that ground medical obligations in simple beneficence or simple autonomy, conceived as monolithic norms. Beneficence, unleavened by respect for autonomy, can lead to paternalism, while autonomy alone obviates trust and often deteriorates into indifference. Still the feasibility of trust depends upon shared values and goals, or at least stable role expectations between providers and patients. The greater the pluralism in a society, the less likely it is that the trust Pellegrino and Thomasma commend can be established.

Health Professional Codes

While beneficence is important to many philosophical and religious systems of ethics, it is central to the health professions. The Hippocratic Oath clearly states that the physician's actions are "for the benefit of the sick" (see Appendix for this and other codes and oaths). The Declaration of Geneva begins with a pledge to "consecrate" one's life to "the service of humanity." The 1980 "Principles" of the American Medical Association (AMA) opens with the declaration that these principles are established "primarily for the benefit of the patient." The International Code for Nurses devised in 1973 begins with a broad-ranging assertion of beneficence. The "fundamental" responsibility of the nurse, it states, is to promote and restore health, alleviate suffering, and prevent illness. While duties to specific persons are recognized, the obligation to perform beneficent actions is seen as universal, because the need for nursing services is universal.

The U.S. Code for Nurses of 1976 differs from all physician codes in recognizing that services not only should promote good but also should be guided by the values of those served. The first principle in this formulation asserts the "self-determination of clients." As noted above, self-determination, or autonomy, is frequently seen as a limiting factor in gauging the extent of beneficence, yet this factor is rarely mentioned in the ethical formulations of health professionals. For example, the practice of soliciting consent from patients was evident in medical practices in the United States in the eighteenth century. Yet these solicitations were not commensurate with today's notion of informed consent. Consent was sought in the eighteenth century primarily to enhance therapy rather than to encourage independent decision making by patients (Faden et al.). Jay Katz presses this point by asserting that consent is largely "alien" to medical thinking, which prefers "custody" over "liberty."

Still, claims for the modern uniqueness of informed consent should be viewed with caution, especially when they tend to valorize an "autonomy model" over a "beneficence model" (Faden et al.). It would be anachronistic to believe that eighteenth-century physicians worked with the mid-twentieth-century concept of consent. Yet it is too sweeping and dualistic to believe that, by default, they were under the sway of a "beneficence model." Medical practices, or moral practices more generally, do not lend themselves to easy encapsulation into models, just as beneficence as a practice is not identical with the philosophical principle of beneficence.

While all versions of professional ethics agree that the acceptance of a patient or a client creates a specific obligation of beneficence, some codes go further and talk of a general duty to seek the public good in matters of health. Here the 1847 Code of the American Medical Association is notable. Chapter III of that code enumerates "Duties of the Profession to the Public." Among those listed are vigilance for the welfare of the community, counsel to the public on health matters, and advice about epidemics, contagion, and public hygiene. Twentieth-century medical codes tend to be more parsimonious in their interpretations of what beneficence entails.

Not even the more generous beneficence in the 1847 AMA Code, however, takes it to cover what Charles Fried calls "the duty to work for and comply with just institutions"(p. 129). Fried here follows and extends the thinking of Kant, who saw beneficence in terms of a duty of mutual aid. Such aid is required because all persons (including ourselves) will at some time need the help of others, so to neglect aiding others would be self-defeating. The societal and public policy implications of beneficence in healthcare are poorly worked out at present. The issues that require attention include general programs of prevention, medical assistance to specific groups (such as AIDS patients), and healthcare for the indigent and uninsured. Most proposals for a more equitable healthcare system in the United States build on notions of justice as an independent principle rather than deriving their justifications from an extension of duties of beneficence.


If beneficent duties are more than supererogatory, or optional, a persistent issue is how to discern their proper scope. Where do obligations to benefit others end? Are we morally required to give away all our surplus income and, beyond that, to chasten ourselves to more modest patterns of consumption? Are physicians obligated never to say "no" to patients so long as any thread of hope for improvement exists? Would beneficence require acceptance of higher taxes to fund universal health coverage, or does acting for my fellow citizens' good require me to die cheaply and forgo expensive treatments with low probability of benefit?

Beneficent duties may be limited in two ways. The first limiting force is duties to oneself. Self-respect, and an appropriate attention to one's own well-being, will of necessity restrict activities for the good of others, unless beneficence is given a preemptive place and is conflated with saintliness. Hume, for example, believed persons can be "too good, " carrying "attention for others beyond the proper bounds, " blunting a due sense of pride and the self-assertive virtues (p. 93). A second kind of limit involves our psychological capacity for identification of and sympathy with those who could use our help. The press of human suffering that could be alleviated by our actions is immense. To conceive of this larger and seemingly inexhaustible world of suffering as our charge would likely be debilitating. Jonathan Glover has suggested that a restricted but feasible beneficence may be the price we pay for our sanity. Limits to the duty to promote good restrict us, but also orient and direct our finite capacities. But perhaps the greater risk is that we will draw a circle around duties in a niggardly fashion, that our imagination will not be too large, risking paralysis, but too stingy and self-serving. It is this narrow and parochial tendency that concerns the advocates of a robust and extensive beneficence.

Relational Selves

The recent challenges to ethical theory from psychological studies of moral experience have profound implications for beneficence. In 1982 Carol Gilligan published her research on the moral development of women, titled In a Different Voice. She claimed that females tend to see moral problems in terms of relationships. They are prone to think of their choices in problem solving as issues of care and responsibility for those relationships. By contrast, males tend to see moral problems in terms of rules and principles, and are prone to think of their choices as logical adjudications. Women's moral orientations tend toward valuing and preserving ties among persons, while men's tend toward abstract thinking by an agent largely removed from and impartial to the parties involved. Gilligan's claim is not that there are precise gender types for moral experience but that the model of the moral self as an abstract, isolated, principled, and hierarchical thinker is insufficient.

Consider the case of Jake and Amy, two eleven-yearolds, who discuss the question "When responsibility to oneself and responsibility to others conflict, how should one choose?" (Gilligan, pp. 35ff.). While Jake adjudicates these responsibilities as if it were a problem of rule application, Amy's response is pragmatic and assumes a relational self. Jake seeks fairness in the manner of a judge; Amy is concerned to see that others' needs are met and relationships are nurtured. The point is not so much that Jake and Amy offer different answers but that they see different issues, and see themselves in different ways.

The implications for a principle of beneficence in bioethics, and in the ethical codes of health professionals, are substantial. Gilligan's research directly challenges the adequacy of thinking of beneficence simply as a principle to be applied to cases, and recommends a notion of beneficence grounded in complex, relational understandings of the self. Hence, the issues of beneficence can no longer be formulated as if the agent were essentially solitary and could contemplate the scope of his or her duties from afar. The self is already, and essentially, immersed in a web of convivial responsibilities. The ethical formulations of most health professions exhibit precisely the hierarchical distancing and the assumption of optional relationships depicted in the "male" model. Attending to the second voice in moral experience would mean moving bioethics beyond an exhaustive reliance on applying beneficence, as a principle, to problem cases. It would also mean taking the ethical codes of health professionals beyond the contract model and into a recognition of a deeper and more integral bond between healers and the sick, and between health professionals and society.

larry r. churchill (1995)

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Bioethics; Compassionate Love; Confidentiality; Ethics: Normative Ethical Theories; Justice; Paternalism; Professional-Patient Relationship


Beauchamp, Tom, and Childress, James. 1989. Principles of Biomedical Ethics. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Beauchamp, Tom, and McCullough, Lawrence. 1984. Medical Ethics: The Moral Responsibilities of Physicians. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Childress, James F. 1982. Who Should Decide?: Paternalism in Health Care. New York: Oxford University Press.

Faden, Ruth, and Beauchamp, Tom, with Nancy King. 1986. A History and Theory of Informed Consent. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frankena, William. 1973. Ethics. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fried, Charles. 1978. Right and Wrong. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glover, Jonathan. 1977. Causing Death and Saving Lives. London: Penguin.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1947. Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David. 1966 (1777). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 2nd edition. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Kant, Immanuel. 1959. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Lewis White Beck. New York: Macmillan.

Katz, Jay. 1984. The Silent World of Doctor and Patient. New York: Free Press.

Locke, John. 1980 (1690). Second Treatise of Government, ed. Crawford B. MacPherson. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Loewy, Erich. 1991. Suffering and the Beneficent Community: Beyond Libertarianism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1978 (1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Mill, John Stuart. 1979 (1863). Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Partridge, Eric. 1983. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House.

Pellegrino, Edmund D., and Thomasma, David C. 1988. For the Patient's Good: The Restoration of Beneficence in Health Care. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ross, W. D. 1930. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


views updated May 17 2018

398. Kindness (See also Generosity.)

  1. Allworthy, Squire Tom Joness goodhearted foster father. [Br. Lit.: Tom Jones ]
  2. Androcles relieves lion of thorn in paw and is repaid in arena by lions failure to attack him. [Rom. Lit.: Noctes Atticae, Leach, 55]
  3. Bachelor, the the universal mediator, comforter, and friend. [Br. Lit.: Old Curiosity Shop ]
  4. Bishop of Digne gave starving Valjean food, bed, and comfort. [Fr. Lit.: Les Misérables ]
  5. Boaz took benevolent custody of Ruth. [O.T.: Ruth 2:816]
  6. Brownlow, Mr. rescued Oliver Twist from arrest and adopted him. [Br. Lit.: Dickens Oliver Twist ]
  7. calycanthus symbol of compassion. [Plant Symbolism: Jobes, 279]
  8. Carey, Louisa Philips loving, sensitive aunt. [Br. Lit.: Of Human Bondage, Magill I, 670672]
  9. Cuttle, Captain kindly shelters runaway, Florence Dombey. [Br. Lit.: Dombey and Son ]
  10. Evilmerodach Babylonian king; kind to captive king, Jehoiachin. [O.T.: II Kings 25:2729]
  11. Finn, Huckleberry refuses to turn in Jim, the fugitive slave. [Am. Lit.: Huckleberry Finn ]
  12. Francis of Assisi, St. (11821226) patron saint and benevolent protector of animals. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 132]
  13. Fridays child loving and giving. [Nurs. Rhyme: Opie, 309]
  14. Glinda the Good Witch; Dorothys guardian angel. [Am. Lit.: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ; Am. Cinema: Halliwell, 780]
  15. Good Samaritan helps out man victimized by thieves and neglected by other passers-by. [N.T.: Luke 10:3035]
  16. heart symbol of kindness and benevolence. [Heraldry: Halberts, 30]
  17. Hood, Robin helps the poor by plundering the rich. [Br. Lit.: Robin Hood ]
  18. Jesus Christ kind to the poor, forgiving to the sinful. [N.T.: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John]
  19. Joseph of Arimathaea retrieved Christs body, enshrouded and buried it. [N.T.: Matthew 27:5761; John 19:3842]
  20. Kuan Yin goddess of mercy. [Buddhism: Binder, 42]
  21. La Creevy, Miss spinster painter of miniatures who devoted herself to befriending the Nicklebys. [Br. Lit.: Dickens Nicholas Nickleby ]
  22. lemon balm symbol of compassion. [Herb Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 164]
  23. Merrick, Robert doing good to others as raison dêtre. [Am. Lit.: The Magnificent Obsession, Magill I, 547549]
  24. Nereus venerable sea god of great kindliness. [Gk. Myth.: Century Classical, 744745]
  25. Old Woman of Leeds spent all her time in good deeds. [Nurs. Rhyme: Mother Goose, 97]
  26. ox exhibits fellow-feeling for comrades. [Medieval Animal Symbolism: White, 7778]
  27. Peggotty, Daniel kindhearted bachelor who shelters niece and nephew. [Br. Lit.: David Copperfield ]
  28. Philadelphia city of brotherly love. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 651]
  29. Rivers, St. John takes starving Jane Eyre into his home. [Br. Lit.: Jane Eyre ]
  30. Rodolph, Grand Duke helps criminals and the poor to a better life. [Fr. Lit.: Sue The Mysteries of Paris in Magill I, 632]
  31. Romola cares lovingly for her blind father, provides for her husbands mistress and children, and is kind to all who suffer. [Br. Lit.: George Eliot Romola ]
  32. St. Martin in midwinter, gave his cloak to a freezing beggar. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Dictionary ]
  33. Strong, Doctor the kindest of men. [Br. Lit.: David Copperfield ]
  34. throatwort indicates sympathy. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 178]
  35. Veronica, St. from pity, offers Christ cloth to wipe face. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 334]
  36. Vincent de Paul, St. French priest renowned for his charitable work. [Christian Hagiog.: NCE, 2896]
  37. Wenceslas, St. Bohemian prince noted for piety and generosity. [Eur. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1147]


views updated May 21 2018


Gentleness, compassion, beneficence, the opposite of malevolence. Originally it seems to have indicated an attitude likely to be found among persons related by blood, but the modern designation is broader. Moreover, family affection, when too exclusive, can become a vice. In any case, the term came to be applied generally to an attitude and behavior toward people at large.

Though some elements of this human characteristic found favor with the Greek moralists, its present ethical position flows quite directly from OT and NT sources. It is considered as a divine attribute (1 Sm 20.14). In the teachings of Jesus the kind and forgiving spirit is made a condition of receiving divine mercy and forgiveness. Kindness in the sense of love is extended even to enemies (Mt 5.44). Just as in OT times there prevailed a special law of hospitality for strangers and travelers, so too in the early Christian Church hospitality and kindness to strangers was held in esteem. In fact, St. Paul made it one of the qualifications for selection for the episcopacy (1 Tm 2.2).

In describing virtuous actions St. Paul was frequently given to an abundant use of synonyms and to redundancy. Thus in speaking of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal5.2223), he sometimes used kindness in place of benignity or meekness. Again in 1 Cor 13.4 he lists kindness as one of the many attributes of the charitable man. Thus, for the moralist, kindness is considered in relationship with charity.

Since charity is love, it impels one to will the good of others in an efficacious manner. Hence, any general activity in which charity expands into practical exercise is kindness. Normally such activity takes into consideration the spiritual and bodily needs of neighbors. Thus, kindness extends to sinners who have a special claim to those gestures of compassion that prove helpful in restoring them to the community of saints. Such gestures are seldom misunderstood as approbation of sin itself. (see charity.)

Bibliography: b. olivier, "Charity," The Virtues and States of Life, ed. a. m. henry, tr. r. j. olson and g. t. lennon (Theology Library 4; Chicago 1957) 127208. g. kelly, "On the Duty of Loving the Neighbor, Especially Enemies," Review for Religious 7 (1948) 299312.

[w. herbst]


views updated May 21 2018


In public health, the governing ethical theory is utilitarianism, meaning "doing the greatest good for the largest number of people." Beneficence is strongly tied to the utilitarian theory of ethics. It is one of four principles considered in medicine and public health under the principle-based approach to ethical analysis. The other three principles are: respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, and distributive justice. Beneficence is the professional duty to do or produce good. By "good" is meant the performance of acts of kindness and charity. "Doing good" is considered virtuous conduct. Ultimately, beneficence is the duty to do more good than harm through public health actions because, in practice, no action in public health will have exclusively beneficial effects. For example, if a public health agency becomes aware of a person infected with a bacterium that could be spread through the air, then, there is, on the one hand, a duty to respect the person's right to confidentiality and freedom of movement. But, on the other hand, there is a greater duty to prevent the spread of the bacterium to other people. Thus, more good would be achieved by protecting the public health, which can be accomplished only by breaching the duty to maintain the infected person's confidentiality and freedom of movement. Such breaches would occur only to reduce the risk associated with permitting the infectious person to put others at risk of infection (e.g., through quarantine or confinement, with a consequent loss of privacy in terms of the diagnosis). The ethical dilemma for decision makers in public health lies in weighing the pros and cons between at least two conflicting options: protecting the individual's rights or protecting the public health. Such breaches of an individual's rights are rare in public health and are undertaken only with maximum discretion.

Colin L. Soskolne

(see also: Autonomy; Ethics of Public Health; Nonmaleficence; Paternalism )


Beauchamp T. L., and Childress, J. F. (1994). Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 4th edition. New York: Oxford University Press.


views updated May 17 2018

kind·ness / ˈkīn(d)nis/ • n. the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. ∎  a kind act: it is a kindness I shall never forget.


views updated May 23 2018

beneficence (bi-nef-i-sĕns) n. (in health care) the duty to do good and avoid doing harm to other people, which includes acting to promote their interests and protecting the weak and vulnerable. It includes the duty of advocacy (see advocate).