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."
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 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.
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."
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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.