If ever you feel a need for an infusion of kindness, I have a recommendation for you. For those who know me, you are aware that kindness is a high-priority personal value of mine. Recently, while searching my library for books about kindness, I discovered a tiny treasure. The cover, simple yet intriguing with cursive letters, announced: Congratulations, by the way: some thoughts on kindness by George Saunders. What I found inside the thin book, slightly larger than my Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was, surprisingly, a commencement address given by Professor of English George Saunders to the Syracuse University convocation ceremony in May, 2013. The pairing of a graduation address with the value of kindness seemed incongruous to me. Not for long though.
Saunders’ introductory words were:
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 of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Saunders then described some common regrets he might have had, as some of his peers had, but did not. Instead, he recalled a girl, Ellen (pseudonym), who came to his school in the 7th grade. Ellen wore 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. She became a target of teasing and/or silence by her peers. And then one day Ellen was gone as abruptly as she had appeared.
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.
His remaining words were deeply moving, and I wondered how they might have impacted me if spoken to my graduating class. Later, Saunders’ message was published on The New York Times webpage. Within days it had been re-posted more than a million times and led to book publication, which I discovered shortly thereafter.
I’ve re-read Congratulations… so many times. The address itself is easy to find online and takes just fifteen minutes to read. Each re-read fills my heart with the wish to be kinder and an impetus to do a kindness that day.
If you’ve not read the full commencement address, here is the heart of Saunders’ challenge:
Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you—and go after those things as if nothing else matters.
Because, actually, nothing else does.