By George Saunders, author of Congratulations, by the way (Random House, February 2014).
About a year ago I was asked to give a convocation speech for Syracuse University. A graduation speech is always a risky gig. Nobody’s sitting out there thinking, “I’m so excited to be graduating, because I get to hear the speaker!” So I thought I’d better (1) be brief and (2) tell the truth. In considering what advice I could give to a roomful of beautiful, well-educated young men and women, I realized that the only thing I had that they didn’t was that additional 35 years of being alive. More specifically, I started thinking about regret-looking back over those years, what did I really wish I had done differently? The answer was: I regretted almost nothing except my failures of kindness.
The resulting speech was informal, conversational, and urgent, and (surprising the heck out of me), went viral after it was posted last July. I have a feeling it caught on the way it did because kindness is very much on our minds these days; we all live by it personally and yet it seems to have fallen by the wayside as a guiding principle in our public life, having been degraded to a sort of second order virtue-“soft” or” optional.” But without it, we are not fully human. I believe that the desire to be kind comes naturally out of our recognition that we are essentially connected with other people, and we ignore this desire at our own risk.
MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow George Saunders is the New York Times bestselling author of several collections of short stories, including Tenth of December, Pastoralia, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, as well as a collection of essays and a book for children. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.