George Saunders is an award winning writer of short stories and children's books, and a creative writing professor for the MFA program at Syracuse University. His tone is often tragicomic and his work often questions consumerism, corporate culture and the role of mass media. Saunders' satirical tone reminds some readers of Kurt Vonnegut, whose work inspired him. Last year, he gave a well-received commencement speech at Syracuse that has just been released as a short, 64-page book called Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (Random House, 2014). It's well worth reading.
Saunders asserts that as a goal in life, we could do worse than to try to be kinder. He recounts how on his biggest regrets so far in life are failures of kindness. In particular, he remembers a girl is seventh grade who was new at school. He wasn't one of the kids who teased her, but he regrets that he didn't do more to stop her suffering. She just moved away. He wishes he did more to stand up for her and be kind.
We remember people who are kind to us. Can you picture the people along your life path who have reached out to you with support, encouragement and kindness? Did it make a difference?
What regrets do you have about not being kind at some time in your life, either through hurting someone else or failing to stand up for someone you could help protect?
Kindness may start out easy, but may require you to speak up, take a stand or do something different.
Kindness can be messy or complicated. It may require you to go out of your way.
Saunders contemplates why we aren't kinder to each other in his book. I liked his ideas. He thinks sometimes we see ourselves as central to the universe, as if our story is the main or only story. (It's not, by the way. Turns out that everyone has their own narrative.) Saunders believes some of us mistakenly believe that we are separate from the universe. Others of us think we are permanent, and will death will never impact us. We actually know on an intellectual basis that all three of these possibilities are not true, but we might like to act like they are.
How can we become more kind, present, loving, open and less self-absorbed?
We can observe our own life history and our own periods of high and low kindness.
We can seek out art, literature, spirituality, meditation, prayer, time with children, or a conversation with a dear friend who is honest with us to reconnect with what really matters.
If all goes well with our development as a human being, we should get kinder as we age and suffer more losses. Hopefully we grow less selfish and more loving, but there is an optional element to this. Aging happens to most people, but emotional maturity is optional.
I highly recommend Congratulations, by the way. It reminds me that the world needs more kind people, probably more than it needs more successful ones.