Most of us have heeded advice on being kind to others since before we could walk; as we grew older there were many times this advice came out more as a warning to behave. Nonetheless, our lives have been full of teachings that brought us up to believe it was right to treat others as we would want to be treated, to be kinder than is necessary. Kindness may seem like a simple concept, one that should not require continual preaching throughout the years, but it is more likely that there are significant points in our adolescent and adult lives during which we could use a reminder of how much the notion truly matters. Graduates at Syracuse University received just that this May, a reminder to always err in the direction of kindness, during their convocation speech from long-time professor George Saunders.
Saunders may have addressed the class of 2013 over two months ago, but his words are now reaching millions as his speech goes viral; and for good reason. A renowned writer with profound and rather eccentric life experience under his belt, Saunders would, no doubt, have ample advice for college graduates on the cusp of their future. Most certainly, the professor possesses helpful tips that would advance students in their careers, anecdotes to inspire the capped and gowned individuals or praise for the most recent student body to be hailed as “America’s future.” However, when the time came to address Syracuse University’s most recent graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences, Saunders didn’t offer up any of the above. Instead, the New York Times bestselling author opened up to his now fellow alumni, revealing his biggest regret in life while challenging them to not make the same mistakes he did while they are in the pursuit of success.
So, what is George Saunders’ biggest regret? Those moments in his life when he has been unkind, which is why he charges the class of 2013 with the goal of trying to be kinder.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
A wonderful and novel speech that undoubtedly had an air of magic when spoken. The beauty in Professor Saunders’ speech is two fold, in my opinion. First, it is heartwarming that a man who has lived a great deal of life, upon reflecting on his successes and failures, considered his most unkind moments his greatest regret. Second, a person of great intelligence, after thinking long and hard about how best to arm his students for their future, decided a genuine lesson in the value of kindness was the most indispensable knowledge he could bestow. Saunders’ reflection and decision, which likely seemed natural to him, reminds us all the values of a person who is deserving of the title mentor and role model.
Professor Saunders goes on to explain why it is often so difficult for us to be kind to one another, discussing our innate tendencies and intense focus on achievement and success in the superficial form. While he cuts his students (and all of us!) some slack, saying humans naturally become kinder with age, grow to be more loving, he also challenges them to become kinder faster. Selfishness, he proclaims, is a sickness for which there is a cure; all we must do is “err in the direction of kindness” as we take part in all other ambitious things.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: 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. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
You know how people often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive who would it be?” My new answer is easily George Saunders; this is a man who has life completely figured out. I am thankful that, while I was not a member of the Syracuse class of 2013, I was able to heed his advice; counsel that reminds anyone paying attention that there is a part of us that is already as admirable as those we look up to and it is our job to nurture it, allow it to help us be successful. In honor of his sincere words of wisdom, I hope we can each strive to live up to his challenge.
Life isn’t easy and there are long stretches of time where each day is a challenge; no one will debate us on that. Our patience will be tested and obstacles will show up in the middle of our path, obstacles that threaten to break us. There will be joyous moments too, ones of success and victory. The pressures and expectations are high but, in all of these moments, both the good and the bad, I hope that we can all remember to “err in the direction of kindness” while taking action. We have been given the gift of reflection, insight into how even the most accomplished of individuals feel at the top if they weren’t kind along the way. This advice is sure to lead us to a life that will prove to be oh so wonderful in the end if we take it to heart.
Thank you, George Saunders, for your sincerity and words that could only be described as wise and, of course, genuinely kind.