The Smallest Town of All

With Parker Palmer, Naomi Shihab Nye and Howard Zinn

At its core, the true passion and intention behind the work at RST is its focus on the ways in which we build meaningful lives in community. I focus on small, in part because it is more concentrated, but these small places and the people who live and work in them are intended to shed light on a series of global questions. How do we make meaning in our lives? How do we get along? How can powerless people make a difference in a corrupted world? In the wake of the Paris attacks, the following three essays by Howard Zinn, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Parker Palmer each speak eloquently to the notion that peace must start with the self —the smallest town of all.


On Getting Along —by Howard Zinn

You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and
adjusted to this awful world where the efforts of caring people pale in
comparison to those who have power?

It’s easy. First, don’t let “those who have power” intimidate you. No
matter how much power they have they cannot prevent you from living your
life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships
with people as you like. (Read Emma Goldman’s autobiography LIVING MY
LIFE. Harassed, even imprisoned by authority, she insisted on living
her life, speaking out, however she felt like.)

Second, find people to be with who have your values, your commitments,
but who also have a sense of humor. That combination is a necessity!

Third (notice how precise is my advice that I can confidently number it,
the way scientist number things), understand that the major media will
not tell you of all the acts of resistance taking place every day in the
society, the strikes, the protests, the individual acts of courage in
the face of authority. Look around (and you will certainly find it) for
the evidence of these unreported acts. And for the little you find,
extrapolate from that and assume there must be a thousand times as much
as what you’ve found.

Fourth: Note that throughout history people have felt powerless before
authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by
organizing, acting, risking, persisting, have created enough power to
change the world around them, even if a little. That is the history of
the labor movement, of the women’s movement, of the anti-Vietnam war
movement, the disable persons’ movement, the gay and lesbian movement,
the movement of Black people in the South.

Fifth: Remember, that those who have power, and who seem invulnerable
are in fact quite vulnerable, that their power depends on the obedience
of others, and when those others begin withholding that obedience, begin
defying authority, that power at the top turns out to be very fragile.
Generals become powerless when their soldiers refuse to fight,
industrialists become powerless when their workers leave their jobs or
occupy the factories.

Sixth: When we forget the fragility of that power in the top we become
astounded when it crumbles in the face of rebellion. We have had many
such surprises in our time, both in the United States and in other

Seventh: Don’t look for a moment of total triumph. See it as an
ongoing struggle, with victories and defeats, but in the long run the
consciousness of people growing. So you need patience, persistence, and
need to understand that even when you don’t “win,” there is fun and
fulfillment in the fact that you have been involved, with other good
people, in something worthwhile. Okay, seven pieces of profound advice
should be enough.
Howard Zinn




By Naomi Shihab Nye; shared on the berlin artparasites blog:

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.

Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, sho bit se-wee?

The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
she stopped crying.

She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,

Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her—Southwest.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.

Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering

She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.

And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,

With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
this is the world I want to live in. The shared world.

Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.

They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.

Not everything is lost.
– Naomi Shihab Nye



Heartbreak and Hope: Three Questions about Suffering —
by Parker Palmer


“God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.”
—Hazrat Inayat Khan

“It’s happened again,” I thought. Then I remembered that heartbreak happens without ceasing.

Today our hearts are breaking for those murdered in Paris last Friday, for those who loved them, and for all — to quote Omid Safi, my friend and fellow columnist — who are suffering “atrocities in Syria, in Palestine/Israel, in Central African Republic, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Myanmar, in inner-city America,” and other places around our nation and world too numerous to name.

Heartbreak is such a constant that every ancient wisdom tradition seeks to answer three questions: How can we prepare for heartbreak? How should we hold it when it comes, as it always will? Where will we let it take us — toward more death or new life?

Left untended, our hearts can become so brittle that under stress they break apart into a million shards, and are sometimes thrown like fragment grenades at the ostensible source of their pain. Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

But attentive students of life learn to exercise the heart day in and day out, allowing life’s “little deaths” to stretch us in ways that make our hearts suppler. Then, when larger forms of suffering strike, our hearts can break open rather than apart — giving them a greater capacity to hold life’s pain as well as its possibilities and joys.

I know many people whose own wounds — held in a broken-open heart — have made them “wounded healers.” Instead of growing bitter and brittle and passing their pain on to others, they’ve said, “This is where the pain stops and the love begins.” Not in spite of their suffering but because of it they’re better able to offer active forms of compassion to others who suffer.

“Kindness” is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet of great insight, who writes here about the transformation of suffering into everyday love. It’s a gritty, sometimes grim meditation on a virtue we too often romanticize.

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.

In a world that can be as heedless and heartless as ours, kindness must grow from deep roots if it is to be strong and sustainable. As the poet says, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

imageAs of November 17, 2015, 26 governors have come out and openly opposed Syrian refugees entering their respective states. Read more about the composition and location of these refugees.

Sources: Refugee Processing Center, U.S. State Department; Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Migration Policy Institute;

(New York Times.)

This week several U.S. governors said they would refuse to receive Syrian refugees in their states. Many of these governors are Christians, as I am, and more than a few have said that God called them to public office. I have a question for them: “Christians believe that the Son of God is prefigured in Isaiah 53 as ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’ Does the God who speaks to you have anything to say about kindness and compassion?”

I may have to wait a while for the governors to answer. In the meantime, I celebrate and give thanks for all the wounded healers I know. They come from every wisdom tradition, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and secular humanism.

They compel me to ask what I can do today to prevent suffering from turning my heart into a fragment grenade.

They model for me what it might mean to let heartbreak open me to the kindness that — in the poet’s words — is the only thing “that makes sense anymore.”

Author’s Note: It’s rare to learn the real-life story behind a poem, but Nye has told the story behind this one. You can read it here, about halfway down the page.





  1. I absolutely LOVE Naomi Nye’s poem on kindness…it really is all that matters.I also love the Dalai Lama’s quote:”My religion is kindness.” That says it all.

  2. thank you!!! This was very timely for me.
    In deep gratitude, Colleen

    • balm for the soul, Colleen! Nice to hear from you!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *