Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.
– George Saunders, American writer, from his commencement speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013
George Saunders’s commencement speech to the class of 2013 at Syracuse University went viral last week, shortly after appearing in the New York Times. It ranks as one of the top inspirational graduation speeches, in my opinion. What makes it enduring for me is how his advice resonates for all generations. Kindness is at the heart of his speech – though you should read it in its entirety. Looking back on his life, Saunders realized that the thing he regrets most in his life is his “failures of kindness.” As a result, he entreated the newly graduated to “try to be kinder.”
Saunders noted that we humans have difficulty being kinder because of three survival-of-the-fittest instincts, which can be at odds with being selfless and more open and loving: We’re central to the universe, we’re separate from the universe, and we’re permanent. This is why being kind is hard, according to Saunders. But have no fear: There is a way to kindness.
Finding the way He believes that we become kinder with age. We become kinder, Saunders says, because of our life’s experiences – adversities knock us down, people lend us a helping hand and lift us up, and as a result we are grateful for our community. As we grow older, we see the uselessness of being selfish, staring straight-on at our mortality and watching our loved ones leave us. “As you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love,” Saunders said. “YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.”
Until then, however, the newly graduated have things to accomplish – careers, dreams, and accolades. Saunders assured them that it’s okay to be ambitious, as the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. “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,” he said. Saunders, who is 54 and graduated from Syracuse’s Creative Writing Program the year before I entered the program, has been a professor there since 1997, and is a highly acclaimed writer of short stories, novellas, and essays.
Saunders warns us not to let the act of trying to succeed take up all our energies, leaving the “big questions” untended. That’s why he entreats us to do the ambitious things but “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,” he said. Saunders advises us to reconnect or remain connected to the luminous part of ourselves “to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”
Getting back to the luminous part of ourselves I can’t say that everyone becomes kinder with age, but for those of us in the second half of our lives, Saunders’s words either remind us of the possibilities or are an epiphany to a gentler, more serene way to live out the rest of our years. At our age, we can and should still strive to be our best selves, even if we haven’t yet accomplished what we set out to do with our lives when we were doe-eyed, in cap and gown, clutching our diplomas in our anxious hands. We may have been distracted and separated from the luminous part of ourselves – either from selfishness, darkness, confusion, sadness, and self-doubt or happenstance or discovery – but we can still “nurture it and share its fruits tirelessly” no matter where we are in our lives.