The Importance of Kindness: An Animation of George Saunders’ Touching Graduation Speech

Ever since he was first pub­lished in The New York­er back in 1992, George Saun­ders has been craft­ing a string of bril­liant short sto­ries that have rein­vent­ed the form. His sto­ries are dark, fun­ny, and satir­i­cal that then turn on a dime and become sur­pris­ing­ly mov­ing. And the mad­den­ing thing about him is that he makes such tonal dex­ter­i­ty look easy. Over the course of his career, he has won piles of awards includ­ing a MacArthur “Genius” Fel­low­ship in 2006. In 2013, his col­lec­tion of short sto­ries The Tenth of Decem­ber was select­ed by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year. You can read 10 sto­ries by Saun­ders free online here.

Last year, Saun­ders deliv­ered the con­vo­ca­tion speech for Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty where he teach­es writ­ing. Most such speech­es are dull and for­get­table or, as was the case when Ross Per­ot spoke at my grad­u­a­tion, inco­her­ent and churl­ish. Saunders’s speech, how­ev­er, was some­thing dif­fer­ent — a qui­et, self-effac­ing plea for empa­thy. When it was reprint­ed by the New York Times last July, the speech seem­ing­ly popped up on every third person’s Face­book feed.

Brook­lyn-based group Seri­ous Lunch has cre­at­ed an ani­mat­ed ver­sion of Saun­ders’ speech, voiced by the author him­self. You can watch it above and read along below. You’ll prob­a­bly want to call your mom or help an old lady across the street after­ward.

I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than try to be kinder.

In sev­enth grade, this new kid joined our class. In the inter­est of con­fi­den­tial­i­ty, her 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.

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. 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.

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.

But kind­ness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rain­bows and pup­py dogs, and expands to include … well, every­thing.

You can read Saunders’s entire speech here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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