George Saunders is a professor of English at Syracuse University and a writer of short stories, essays, novellas and children's books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and Harper's, among other publications.
In 2013, Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013, and shared it with The New York Times where it was reprinted with his permission.
In April of 2014 the speech was published by Random House in this little book. Mr. Saunders argues that "as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder." He understands that we all have ambitions for fame, fortune and love but urges us as much as possible to: "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."
Although the entire graduation speech appears in The New York Times, the book is beautifully produced. The speech takes only about 15 minutes to read but each word carries weight and meaning. It is a speech to savor and re-read often. Although the speech is available online, I recommend buying the book. But in any event, the speech is absolutely worth reading.
Prof. Saunders dedicates this lecture to his grandparents. Everyone knows that grandparents are often the source of the purest unadulterated kindness. Those fortunate enough to grow up around a few of this species of grandparent can appreciate a certain kind of love experience that inspires emulation. He cautions that we can spoil the whole process by thinking that it is only ourselves who merit such affection. It is a brave essay that hopes our civilization is not merely a veneer covering a baser fundamentality.
This book really helps you see things and understand things that you should be understanding and thinking about in those tiny microseconds that pass you by. You know, all those things you think you should actually be caring about. Those things that you should be putting your time toward, but as you get stuck in traffic, or head to school, or get to work, or go eat, or go out, you tend to forget and place in the empty dusty storage cabinet of your mind.
It speaks about kindness, and what kindness projects, and what kindness really means, right now, tomorrow, and when you near the end of your mortality. Read it, and this vague review will soon become clearer.
Psychotherapists don't give gift books. Well, that's what I was taught in training, but 30 years of practice and a clear sense that this book would fill the bill, allowed me to bestow this thought in print to a client before my leave of absence from my practice. She had worked hard in her therapy to accept the fact that both her parents seemed to be mentally ill, as they were periodically in and out of clinics for as long as she could remember. She had raised her siblings with a determination that she would earn her own life, free of illness, and it would be good and deserving. Nonetheless, a difficult family of origin, an arduous work life and an extended educational life, this combination left her secretly bitter and resentful. We'd been stuck in this miserable state in our therapy work, until the day she called to thank me for the gift book. Adding that she thought her negativity was "kind of falling away, as I think about kindness, what it means when someone is kind to me...and how I want to learn to give kindness to others more easily and more often." Why else would anyone put an idea into book form? It's to change lives for the better...move us on.
We live in a time when various cultural voices prod us to be angry, discontented, and cynical. Kindness is seen as weakness; in reality it is evidence of strength. The message of this book is short, but worth the time & a revisit when the world seems to be cruel and there is a loss of empathy. Kindness is presented as a gift over a lifetime...to others and, in turn, ourselves.
First -- don't expect a full length book. This was a college commencement address. Second -- the blank pages aren't blank, but gradually fill with stars. Enjoy that. Finally -- it's the address I hope those students take to heart and live by. It could change the world. It will definitely change theirs if they choose kindness as a way of life. I share this book often -- especially with the young ones in my life.