George Saunders, a writer best known for his excellent short stories, delivered the 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse University earlier this year. Yesterday, the New York Times printed the speech in its entirety, and there are some powerful and moving lessons worth sharing:
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.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish—how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true.
This advice feels at once idealistic and practical, grandiose and mundane, ambitious and imminently do-able—which is to say, the type of advice that we can follow in large and small ways. As we think about the lives we want to lead and the way we hope to someday look back on the lives we have led, practicing kindness seems like a good place to start.