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.
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.