Some Thoughts on Kindness

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.

Saunders continued:

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.

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About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I grew there in so many ways and today I'm a long-time editor for the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal, as well as a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site, another unique place in cyberspace. Then, next year, I’ll again be honored to be program chair for our Stories from the Heart national conference in Austin, TX. I have so many loves: first, my three children: my son, Chip and daughter, Polly, both in Virginia; and my youngest daughter, Susan, in Florida, and also dear family and friends. I must also include my cats Hilary (20) and Button (5). Sometimes I foster cats and kittens for the Humane Society, but Button prefers me not to. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. Now, all these years later, I believe I've sliced through the layers to reach the heart of my story, and am presently working on the final revision of my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Compassion, Gifts, Gratitude, Kindness, Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

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