The Real Meaning of “Kin”

Written by John Paul Carter on March 1, 2011

This is the second installment from guest columnist John Paul Carter. John Paul, my husband’s cousin, is a retired mental-health counselor, part-time pastor, and long-time columnist for the Weatherford Democrat newspaper in Weatherford, Texas.

He’ll be submitting his previously published columns from time to time and we’ll reprint them here.

They offer a wealth of wisdom and are just perfect for the Five More Minutes With audience.Thank you again, John Paul!


Author Forrest Carter is perhaps best known for his popular novel “The Outlaw Jose Wales,” which was made into the movie “Gone to Texas,” starring Clint Eastwood. But many believe that Carter’s one great novel was “The Education of Little Tree,” his autobiographical remembrance of his orphaned boyhood with his Eastern Cherokee Hill country grandparents during the 1930s depression.

Little Tree recalled that when, late at night, he heard his grandpa tell his grandma, “I kin ye, Bonnie Bee,” he knew that he was saying, “I love ye” – because of the feeling in the words.

“And when they would be talking,” Little Tree recollected, “and Grandma would say ‘Do ye kin me, Wales?’ and he would answer, ‘I kin ye,’ it meant, ‘I understand ye.’

To them, love and understanding was the same thing. Granma said you couldn’t love something you didn’t understand….Granpa and Granma had an understanding, and so they had a love….And they called it ‘kin.’”

Little Tree’s grandpa told him that “before his time ‘kinfolks’ meant any folks that you understood and had an understanding with, so it meant ‘loved folks.’ But people got selfish, and brought it down to mean just blood relatives; but that actually it was never meant to mean that.”

“Kin” is a small but powerful word that brings together two beautiful actions that are inseparable: love and understanding. When we feel understood, we feel loved. And when we feel loved, we trust that we will be understood.

To be understood is to be heard, validated, accepted, and valued. One of our greatest needs is love that understands – from other persons and from our Creator.

Love that understands requires the courage to express ourselves – to reveal our feelings, thoughts, differences, secrets, faults, and our pride as well as our shame.

Our greatest fear is that if I tell you who I am, you may not love me. (The courage to take such a risk is strengthened if there’s already some measure of trust within the relationship.)

At the same time, such love requires the will to understand the other – to listen with empathy and patience…without pre-judgment, criticism, or advice.

It resists claiming, “I know exactly how you feel.” And when told, “You don’t understand,” determined love responds, “I want to understand. Can you tell me more?” and then waits in silence.

Stephen Covey believes that one of the habits of highly effective people is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” My temptation is to let my own need to be understood, helpful, or right undercut my “hearing the other person out” in a way that might enable them to feel heard and valued.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God risked himself to understand us and to reveal his unwavering love for the world. Because we are all God’s kin, we’re called to “kin” one another.

In the words of Francis of Assisi, “O Divine Master, grant that we might not so much seek to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love….” Amen