March 17, 2020

When Only Kindness Makes Sense

Just before our fortieth wedding anniversary in 2008, I drive my husband Vic to Strong Hospital where he’s being treated for lymphoma. The long drive is familiar after two years. Spring-green hillsides shout May vitality and hope, while Vic chokes and gasps in the passenger seat next to me. He’s exhausted from cancer treatment and months of coughing. He lives on prednisone by day and a few hours of fitful Ambien-induced sleep at night.

My heart breaks for him and for myself. I’m exhausted, too, and I know my husband is dying.

Strong Hospital, Rochester, NY

After Vic is admitted to the hospital, his oncologist arranges to have another doctor drain the fluid surrounding Vic’s lungs. I can’t imagine another invasive procedure, but Vic’s will to live remains unbroken. Although he hasn’t eaten or slept for days, he longs to take a deep breath.

That evening, an impatient white-coated pulmonologist and his students surround Vic’s bed.

“You sit on the side of the bed and lean forward on that tray table so we can work on your back,” the pulmonologist orders Vic.

“You stand in front of him. Push your body against the table and let him lean into you from the opposite side so nothing moves,” he orders me. Unlike most of the doctors we’ve met, he offers no gentle smiles of encouragement, no reassurance. I do what he says.

kind doctors & nurses in stem cell transplant unit

Someone added this procedure to the end of this man’s long day. He doesn’t hide his unhappiness about it. His students are tense and cautious as they follow his brusque directions, sterilize Vic’s back, and insert a needle into the fluid-filled space around Vic’s lungs.

Unable to speed the process, the doctor paces around Vic’s bed, his resentment simmering under the surface. Vic looks up at me with exhausted sad eyes. I want to vaporize this doctor.

“Will you read the poem about kindness?” Vic asks in a whisper.

“Now?” I ask.

Naomi Shihab Nye

“Yes, now. Please.”

I think he’s lost his mind but ask one of the students to hold Vic steady for a moment. I get Vic’s recently published book Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics from his briefcase and resume my position across the tray table. Despite the strange sucking sounds, a smell of fetid salt water, a horrifying amount of cloudy fluid dripping into plastic containers, and my embarrassment, I read the poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that ends Vic’s book:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.[i]

My voice chokes with tears. The pulmonologist’s jaw loosens and his hard voice softens. The students sigh and reach out toward Vic’s back with tenderness. My belly relaxes and Vic takes a deep breath. Twilight dissolves the hard stainless edges of the equipment and a humming grace descends over the room.


[i] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness,” Words under the Words (Portland, Oregon: Eight Mountain Press, 1995), 42-43. (With permission from author)

I waited for the right time to share this story of kindness from my book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (Larson Publications). This is the time. The article was first published in The Healing Muse, May 8, 2014.

Have you seen a gentle response to anger and fear change a difficult experience into a sacred one? I’d love to hear about it. To hear about the experience that inspired the poem “Kindness” and to hear the poet read the poem, see “Kindness Over Fear: Naomi Shihab Nye Tells the Remarkable Real-Life Story That Inspired Her Beloved Poem ‘Kindness’.” For an article about moments of joy and hope in life with Vic, see Bookends of a Marriage.


  1. March 31, 2020 at 1:57 am



    Doctors and Nurses is a big hero for today, god bless everyone.

    1. March 31, 2020 at 10:36 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Yes, blessings to those caregivers risking their lives.

  2. March 30, 2020 at 2:53 pm



    Elaine, This is one of the most beautiful and moving stories I have read–or as your poet friend Deborah Gregory perfectly captured it,”achingly beautiful.” I have loved this poem by Naomi since I first came across it a number of years ago, and then was moved even more deeply when I read the story behind how the poem came to her. I have memorized a handful of my favorite poems and am now committing this one to memory thanks to your and Vic’s inspiration. And you have reminded me to watch for the moments when grace descends–and to look for them especially when anger and fear are present. On a lighter note, I’ve also made up a ditty about kindness as I wash my hands.

    1. March 31, 2020 at 11:11 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Anne. It’s a rare heart-opening poem. In my book I write about her giving permission for me to use it. First she had given Vic permission four years before and wanted almost nothing–$10 donation to a charity of Vic’s choice, a local food item, and a copy of the book when it came out. Vic was sick at the time, so I sent a whole box of local food. Then she was just as generous with me, including endorsing my book and sending me an unpublished poem which I used to begin the book. She practices what she preaches. Kindness is a great poem to memorize. At the moment, I’d love to hear your handwashing ditty. Thanks for staying in touch.

      1. March 31, 2020 at 3:52 pm



        It’s lovely to hear about your exchanges with Naomi Shihab Nye.

        So here’s my ditty, which I sing very slowly to a simple tune I made up:

        Please teach me
        about kindness
        for myself and
        others too.
        It’s what matters
        most in this life
        loving me
        and loving you.

        Now I am going to go and order your book.

        1. April 1, 2020 at 10:11 am

          Elaine Mansfield


          Thanks, Anne, including ordering my book. Naomi was an incredible support at that time and later sent a few of her own grieving friends to me. Her beloved father died around that time, so she knew grief well. I love your ditty. I’ll figure out my own tune for it. I’ve been singing my favorite birthday song: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to me, every day we are born, every day we are free.” Hmmm… Now if I just substituted clean hands or virus free for happy birthday, I could make that work. May all be well and safe.

  3. March 19, 2020 at 8:30 am

    Janet Givens


    A powerful poem, much needed at this time. I thank you for that, and appreciate Vic’s wisdom in knowing what was needed at that moment. I wonder if he knew how well you’d keep his memory alive. Take care, Elaine.

    1. March 19, 2020 at 11:25 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Janet, Vic was struggling to breathe and protect himself and everyone from the toxic feeling this doctor was spewing. Vic wasn’t afraid of doctors because he taught pre-med physics. For a brief time, he was treated by a doctor who had been his physics student. Vic often read poems and pieces about compassion to the pre-med students even though most of them were only interested in passing the tests. He may have automatically stepped into his teacher/professor role. For whatever reason, he had the right intuition. He just wanted to breathe and didn’t want to be exposed to anger. Kindness was his mode of dealing with illness.

  4. March 18, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Marian Beaman


    Reading the comments, I’m glad you are staying in contact with humans as you “calypso” with Disco and other doggies. Interestingly, this pandemic has begun as the world (at least the northern hemisphere) is beginning to spring forth with new life. Had it erupted in the dead of winter it would have seemed worse, I think.

    The story of Vic and his brusque doctor is heart-breaking until your husband mentioned “kindness.” the true measure of his character. I was happy to hear Naomi Shihab Nye read the poem aloud, so poignant and true. In 78 years, I have experienced many losses and sorrow – and yes, this is the perfect time to share this story again. All over the world now, people are hungry for kindnesses. Thanks for sharing this bit, Elaine. I pray for you comfort and cheer. 😀

    1. March 19, 2020 at 11:15 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Marian, I’m pushing my comfort zone and using FaceTime more. I’ll talk to my dream therapist on Skype instead of in person and my writing group will be held on Zoom Meetings. Wow! What a fast change and what a sense of crisis! Morning prayer and time in the forest help. I have to see a human face or two, so I’m grateful for electronic connections. I’m also grateful I live with dogs and not entirely alone. I didn’t go to North Carolina to visit one son as planned and stay in touch with my local son with text messages. If I need anything, he’ll help me out.

      The hospital experience with Vic in 2008 made me understand in the deepest way how useless and harmful it is to face anger with anger. We’d had a few minor issues with medical snafus in the previous years of cancer treatment and my tendency was to get irritable and gruff, like a mother bear protecting her cub. Vic invariably said in the sweetest way that anger didn’t help anything. He became more and more vulnerable rather than defensive when he was ill. Yes, I think we’re all in need of kindness. Naomi Shihab Nye and her poems are guiding lights. I pray for light, health, and patience for all of us. I don’t go out much most of the time, but that’s lots different from not going out at all. Sending love to you and yours in FL.

      1. March 20, 2020 at 1:06 am

        Marian Beaman



  5. March 18, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    Jean Raffa


    Thank you, Elaine, for this oasis of beauty and hope. Love, Jeanie

    1. March 19, 2020 at 11:02 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Jeanie. It was one of those miraculous, life changing moments. I’m hoping to get used to this new life enough to catch up with reading. Your blogs are on my mind.

  6. March 18, 2020 at 5:48 am

    Jan Maltzan


    I’ve always been brought to still point by this poem and so much appreciate having it appear before me in this midnight hour tonight. I didn’t even realize I needed it until it was in front of me. I’ve been in “shelter in place” now for 7 days, not mandatory yet but highly encouraged. Lights are fading, blinking out in large buildings as well as the small neighborhood businesses as my 2.66 million people metro area in northern California grinds slowly to a halt. I am fine. My friends and neighbors are fine. And my family in Central New York is fine. But the world around us is not fine, it’s listing, off kilter and not quite known. My friend around the corner calls and says that another neighbor is at the Natural Foods Co-op asking what can she buy her, and my friend who knows I shop there asks can you pick up things for Jan also. The store is only letting in 50 people at a time, it is cold and damp with mist and I don’t want to stand in line surrounded by dozens people – somewhere I am not suppose be now. So relieved. And so thankful. Grateful for my young cheerful Scottish neighbor who bounds up my steps with a bag of fresh vegetables with a smile. Kindness!

    1. March 18, 2020 at 12:16 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      It’s the most amazing poem, Jan, and I loved hearing her tell the story of how and when it came to her. When all seemed lost! This shelter in place thing is harder when we live alone. I’m grateful for the company of my dogs and that they get me outside in the forest and prevent depression. There are so many hopeful signs of new life in the forest and I pick up sprouting acorns and bring them inside, hoping I’ll grow a few oak trees to mark this experience.

      It must be amazing to see city lights turned off where you are and a minimum of traffic. What a quick change we’ve made because we knew we had to, even if we weren’t guided on a national level. I’m glad your family in central NY is fine, too, and I’m glad we can contact each other with phones and computers–and that we have electric. I’m grateful for all the people who take care of the sick, but also tend the healthy by providing food as safely as possible and keeping the electric flowing. I’m most grateful for your kind neighbors who deliver fresh vegetables and smiles. I’m about to call a neighbor to see how she and her husband are doing. Sending love your way.

  7. March 18, 2020 at 5:39 am

    susan scott


    You’re right Elaine, this is the time …

    I like that the word scared and sacred contain the same letters.

    I remember reading your book and those words and your saying them at Vic’s bedside with the medical team around him. And the humming Grace that descends on all …

    Now more than ever we must practice kindness in word thought and deed. We can arrange food deliveries for those who cannot get out eg pensioners or disabled or in self isolation –

    And this is a time for us to isolate ourselves and use this time as best we can – the use of technology helps to stay in contact and help out by way of having deliveries made, or using independent businesses to deliver – or whatever … we can work together unity in spite of everything –

    So, chop wood, carry water, Keep Calm & Carry on and wash your hands …

    Thank you for this lovely post Elaine …

    1. March 18, 2020 at 12:04 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      I like that, too, Susan–sacred and scared. At 74, I’m considered one of the people who need help, but I have food in the house and I’m staying away from others for a few weeks to make sure I didn’t contact the virus at hospice or the grocery store on the last day I was out (March 13). I’m grateful for technology for social contact. My dream therapist and I will try talking via Skype or Facetime next week, but if that doesn’t work well because of my hearing or other issues, I’m OK.

      I’m donating money to food pantries because I’m most concerned about children who have no school now and their families, especially people who have to work in the service industry. No one delivers anything out in the country where I live, but my son will drop something at the door if I should need anything. I’m carrying wood (loading the wood stove to keep the house warm) and filling a few buckets with water in case power goes out, but there seems no threat of that now. Just the threat of taking this all too lightly, but California and Washington State led the way with self-quarantining since we had no guidance from our national government and then others followed their lead. Staying healthy and not needing medical resources seems the kindest thing to do–and besides we have few coronavirus testing kits available or the protective suits health care users need. We take care of each other by enduring limitation and restriction. I hope to settle in and settle down to use this time well.

  8. March 18, 2020 at 1:17 am

    Lauren Banner


    A breathtaking piece. A gem. A humming grace.

    1. March 18, 2020 at 11:50 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Lauren. I’ll never forget the feeling and sound of the descent of grace that evening. It seemed to amaze everyone in the room–lots of medical personnel and me. Vic wasn’t amazed. He was relieved and completely open and vulnerable. I’ll also be forever grateful that you stayed with us through the last days and stayed with me after that.

  9. March 17, 2020 at 8:10 pm

    Mark Liebenow


    Perfect, Elaine, for then, and for today.

    1. March 18, 2020 at 11:45 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Mark.

  10. March 17, 2020 at 9:44 am

    Deborah Gregory


    “Kindness” by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye is such an exquisite and timely poem for these unprecedented times. Thank you so much Elaine for sharing this together with your own achingly beautiful story of kindness. Today, I feel like a poet without words as tears gently fall at the beauty, kindness and humming grace held deep within your moving words.

    Not so much seen as experienced, when I wrapped my fingers around my sleeping mother’s hand as she lay in a hospital bed. In doing so, I felt a lifetime of anger and hatred dissolve. A sacred experience for sure as she woke and spoke my name for the first time in 18 years. Usually there are only a handful of moments in a person’s life when it really matters. This was one of those for me.

    Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures … so thank you my dear friend for circulating more kindness in these times, it’s the only thing that matters in the end. Love and light, Deborah.

    1. March 18, 2020 at 11:44 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Your tears are eloquent, Deborah. I’ll never forget the feeling and sound of humming grace when rage and impatience were banished by the poem. Weeks later, residents and nurses said that doctor was a changed man–softer and kinder. I hope it lasted, but anger is seductive. After I read the poem, Vic asked me to give the doctor the book, so he left holding the book and the poem. It felt like the right time to share my most dramatic personal experience with the transforming power of kindness.

      I’m grateful you had that experience with your mom. Just the saying of your name after all those years and one touch. A blessing for sure. Thanks for sharing that intimate healing experience. Sending light and hope across the sea.

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