“Failures of kindness” George Saunders @Syracuse

In this week of blooming jacarandas, empty white folding chairs await the procession of the graduates, and an elevated podium echoes with the voice of a valedictorian at sound check, rehearsing for the big day.

On the majority of campuses an eminent personage will join the assembly, offering wit and wisdom. This week we will revisit some of the best advice delivered @commencement, beginning with George Saunders at Syracuse University in 2013.

In January of 2013,  Joel Lovell profiled the writer/professor for the New York Times Magazine, ‘George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year’.

“Tobias Wolff, who taught Saunders when he was in the graduate writing program at Syracuse in the mid-’80s, said, “He’s been one of the luminous spots of our literature for the past 20 years,” and then added what may be the most elegant compliment I’ve ever heard paid to another person: “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”

I think the best speeches create an aspirational bridge between the experience of our undergraduate years and executing our life plan.

The memorable ones communicate with the soul and the easiest way to connect is with a common experience… like the time in grammar school when we missed an opportunity to notice, to include…

This is where Saunders’ speech begins, the ‘generous spirit’ sharing his regret.

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

Could a narrative be more welcome amidst the lack of civility in our national conversation?

“How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

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

When young, we’re anxious — understandably — to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you — in particular you, of this generation — may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .

And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes… but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.”




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