In hard times, it is easy to focus on the negative because that is all around us. The world is facing a global pandemic and death. We’re noticing, even more than usual, how many people are failed by our systems, lacking any resources and support, and suffering as a result. In addition to that, we are still navigating the challenges of our own lives. It is easy to fall into despair. But, although it might sound simplistic, focusing on even the tiniest moments of good, the little kindnesses, the things that we are grateful for in the midst of this (water to drink, food to eat, a kind word from a friend, the relief of stretching our bodies) can help us. Bringing our attention to what is working can provide us with hope, not a false hope that says that nothing is wrong, but a hope that reveals what is good even in the midst of all the hard things.
Grown-ups can lead this exercise with the kids in their lives. Older kids can follow the instructions on their own, but I recommend this exercise be done in community with the person leading it reading instructions aloud and allowing for time to write in between prompts. One important thing to note to both those facilitating and those participating: There is no “right” way to do this exercise. All the guidance is a jumping off point and whatever way this works for you is great!
Materials: All you need for this exercise are several pieces of paper or a notebook and something to write with. There’s also an option to create a visual after you write which you could do with pencil or markers/crayons if they are available to you.
This is one of my all-time favorite poems by one of my all-time favorite poets. I return to “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye again and again because it soothes me and because it recognizes the depth that comes from feeling. Here’s the thing: When we have experienced deep sorrow in our lives, it also makes us more readily able to understand true moments of joy and gratitude.
During an episode of the On Being with Krista Tippett episode titled “Your Life is a Poem”, Naomi Shihab Nye spoke of the benefits of writing to express emotion. She said:
“…writing things down — whatever you’re writing down, even if you’re writing something sad or hard — usually, you feel better after you do it. Somehow, you’re given a sense of, ‘OK, this mood, this sorrow I’m feeling, this trouble I’m in — I’ve given it shape. It’s got a shape on the page now. So I can stand back. I can look at it. I can think about it a little differently — ‘What do I do now?’”
And very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse. They always say, ‘I wrote things down. This isn’t quite finished. I need to work on it’ — but they agree that it helped them see their experience, see what they were living…It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.
Last week, I was in a classroom in Austin, Texas, where a girl who was apparently going through a really rough spell at home wrote a poem that was definitely tragic and comic, both, about — everybody was yelling at her in the poem, from all directions. She was just kind of suffering in her home place and trying to find peace, trying to find a place to do her homework. But she wrote this in such a compelling way that when she read it — and read it with gusto and joy; there was such joyousness in her voice, even though she was describing something that sounded awful — when she finished, the girls in her classroom just broke into wild applause. And I saw her face. She lit up. And she said, ‘Man, I feel better.’ And I thought, yeah, that’s — this is such a graphic example of putting words on the page. That feeling of being connected to someone else, when you allow yourself to be very particular, is another mystery of writing.”
First we’ll read the poem. Then we can reflect on the poem. After that, we’ll write!
Reflection Questions (you can either write the answers or talk about them as a group)
1) How would YOU define kindness?
2) What do you think the author is trying to say about kindness?
3) What does she think the connection is between kindness and sorrow?
4) What does it mean to have kindness go everywhere with you, “like a shadow or a friend”?
5) Why is kindness important to the poet? What has it taught her?
Step 1: Make a list of instances in which someone has been kind to you. It can be little things or big things. For example, I think about how yesterday, when I was out walking my dog, my neighbor waved at me and that is a reaching out, a kindness. Make a list of at least five things, but you can also fill up a whole page if you want. (Also, this isn’t limited to human beings. You could also write about kindnesses you experienced from animals, from nature)
Step 2: Pick one kindness from the list to write about. Give us details and fragments of stories like Naomi Shihab Nye—although your writing can be very different from hers. Write every detail you can remember from that moment. And also reflect on how it made you feel. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, just let your thoughts and ideas spill onto the page.
Step 3: When you are finished writing, try drawing an image to accompany your writing. It can be a visual representation of that moment of kindness OR you can draw something more abstract that represents the feeling you had in that moment.
Step 4: The last step is to share your poem with someone! You could read it aloud to a parent or sibling or friend. Or you could write it down and send it in the mail to someone far way. You could also post it somewhere where you see it and read it aloud to yourself so you remember about kindnesses you have experienced.
Writing Into Scary Times is a four-part series. Read the first post, "What Do Your Feelings Want To Say?," here.
Lisa M. O'Neill is an essayist and journalist who writes about social justice issues, politics, and popular culture with an intersectional lens. She is the founder, host, and producer of The MATRIARCHITECTS, a podcast and platform which highlights change-makers who are building a culture that respects, values, and celebrates women. A native New Orleanian and current desert dweller, Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona, where she taught writing in the English Department for a decade. She teaches in-person and online community writing workshops and designs and leads classes as a teaching artist in juvenile detention. She also works with writers as an editor and creativity usher, helping them discover their stories and and usher them onto the page. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Media, Bustle, Diagram, defunct, Edible Baja Arizona, Everyday Feminism, The Feminist Wire, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Salon, Terrain.org, and The Washington Post, among others.