That’s the gist of George Saunders’ advice to the class of 2013, delivered in a convocation speech at Syracuse University. While the graduation address was given months ago, thanks to a recent feature in the New York Times, it’s become the speech that keeps on giving. In fact, the sage advice in Saunders’ address has gone viral, spreading across the Internet on blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
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Saunders delivered the commencement address in what he called the “traditional form,” which according to him is: “Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).”
The premise of Saunders’ speech was simple: Be kind to each other, which echoes Kurt Vonnegut’s line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” To illustrate the importance of this, Saunders told a story from his childhood about a new girl who never fit in and was teased and humiliated by the other children, until one day, she simply moved away. His inability to act more charitably toward the young girl haunts him. “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” Saunders said. “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” He continued, “It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”
For Saunders, it seems that when crafting an adult life, “accomplishment is unreliable,” and kindness is the best legacy. “Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?” he asked. “Those who were kindest to you, I bet.”
Saunders’ most recent collection of stories, Tenth of December, was declared by the New York Times to be “the greatest book you’ll read this year.”