George Saunders on Kindness

As I’m sure some of you know, the author George Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University this year.  You can find the full text of it here:

Anyway, it proved to be so popular, it actually was printed as a book, which I bought and read today.  It was really quite delightful:  short [which personally, I think is the most important characteristic of a good graduation speech], poignant, funny and actually spot on in terms of what a fresh-face graduate with the world at her feet actually needs to hear.   The point of the speech:  be kind–that’s what matters.  It’s hard to disagree with that.

Here are my favorite bits of the address.

Best opening sentence of a graduation speech ever:

“Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is:  Some old fart, his best years behind him, who over the course of his life has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people with all their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.”
When it comes to regrets, he says, “What I regret most in my life are failures if kindness.  Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded….sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.” [I’d put it this way:  There’s nothing worse than mild chagrin in the face of injustice.]
“…as a goal in life, you could do worse than:  Try to be kinder.”
“….my heartfelt wish for you:  As you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.”   
As I read this sentence in particular, I was thinking what an important idea this is in both Buddhism and Christianity.  Christians have both a name for this process (sanctification) and the means of attaining it (spiritual disciplines). Buddhists do, too: in some ways, you could argue that, in a nutshell, this is the process of enlightenment, and the means by which one attains it is the eightfold path.  Speaking of Buddhism, by the way, it was quite interesting to me that Saunders actually talks about selfishness as a sickness in us, and kindness (read:  selflessness, or, stretching a bit, no-self) as the “cure.”  You can’t get much more Buddhist than that!
Finally, and in some ways most importantly:

“…accomplishment is unreliable…Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving:  Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now. “
Good advice for all of us, right?

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