George Saunders Extols the Virtues of Kindness in 2013 Speech to Syracuse University Grads


Full dis­clo­sure: I love George Saun­ders. Can I say that? Can I say that George Saun­ders rekin­dled my faith in con­tem­po­rary fic­tion? Is that too fawn­ing? Obse­quious, but true! Oh, how bored I had become with fourth-hand deriv­a­tive Carv­er, cheap­ened Cheev­er, some­times the sad approx­i­ma­tions of Chuck Palah­niuk. So bor­ing. It had got­ten so all I could read was Philip K. Dick, over and over and over. And Alice Walk­er. And Wuther­ing Heights. And Thomas Hardy. Do you see the pass I’d come to? Then Saun­ders. In a writ­ing class I took, with one of Gor­don Lish’s acolytes (no names), I read Saun­ders. I read Wells Tow­ers, Pad­gett Pow­ell, Aimee Bender—a host of mod­ern writ­ers who were doing some­thing new, in short, some­times very short, forms, but explo­sive!

What is it about George Saun­ders that grips? He has mas­tered friv­o­li­ty, turned it into an art of dia­mond-like com­pres­sion. And for this, he gets a MacArthur Fel­low­ship? Well, yes. Because what he does is bril­liant, in its shock­ing­ly unaf­fect­ed obser­va­tions of human­i­ty. George Saun­ders is an accom­plished writer who puts lit­tle store in his accom­plish­ments. Instead, he val­ues kind­ness most of all, and gen­eros­i­ty. These are the qual­i­ties he extols, in his typ­i­cal­ly droll man­ner, in a grad­u­a­tion speech he deliv­ered to the 2013 grad­u­at­ing class at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty. Kind­ness: a lit­tle virtue, you might say. The New York Times has pub­lished his speech, and I urge you to read it in full. I’m going to give you half, below, and chal­lenge you to find George Saun­ders want­i­ng.

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.

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.

Read the rest of Saun­ders’ speech here, and be moved. Try not to be.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

10 Free Sto­ries by George Saun­ders, Author of Tenth of Decem­ber, “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”

Oprah Winfrey’s Har­vard Com­mence­ment Speech: Fail­ure is Just Part of Mov­ing Through Life

David Byrne’s Grad­u­a­tion Speech Offers Trou­bling and Encour­ag­ing Advice for Stu­dents in the Arts

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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