George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates: Be Kind
August 1, 2013 7:11 AM   Subscribe

 
Wear sunscreen?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:23 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love this. Thanks so much for posting it. Started off a little slow, but wow, it built to a brilliant ending:
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

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 first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, 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. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
I don't think I've ever read anything by him, and now I want to read everything he's ever written.
posted by zarq at 7:23 AM on August 1, 2013 [10 favorites]


"...err in the direction of kindness." Words to live by. Thanks.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:24 AM on August 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


This makes a nice contrast to the thread on customer service. Because, if people were kinder, we would have fewer customer service stories....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:36 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's also a nice contrast in both message and tone to this graduation speech.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:39 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for spreading Advertising!
posted by homodigitalis at 7:55 AM on August 1, 2013


This excerpt is lovely! Genuinely so!

Also, though, this advice to choose kindness, which we hear a lot, in defiance of the "sickness" of "selfishness" that we all share--it comes from a particular, and particularly privileged, cultural context. Sometimes choosing kindness is a heroic effort, not just something to remember to do as you also conquer the world, because you're exhausted by oppression or overwork or chronic illness or any one of a million things that wear you down. And sometimes kindness (especially when it's conflated with niceness) is something we extend in ways that actually comes at the expense of our own protection and self-preservation.

Now, let me be clear: I am not implying that people who struggle in very real ways don't have to be kind or can't globally/constitutionally be kind. It's just that if kindness is a choice, and one we place a lot of cultural value on, I think we can also recognize that it's not a free choice made without constraints. For some of us in the world, this instruction to "Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place" is actually a very high-stakes game, because social institutions and cultural mores and laws are the things that need to be "cleared away."

I would find a message like this more meaningful, I think, if it were communicating that one of the imperatives for the pursuit of social justice is that it allows more of us the space to be kind, the right to be luminous.
posted by liketitanic at 8:07 AM on August 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind. KV
posted by echocollate at 8:07 AM on August 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


(Interesting that you link to the customer service thread, GenjiandProust, because I think this tyrannical commitment to a kind of customer service that requires particular displays of "kindness" and "nice" engagement is deeeeeeeeeeeply classist in ways we ignore in favor of this kind of transhistorical and universalized discourse about affect.)
posted by liketitanic at 8:09 AM on August 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's only three pieces of advice youngsters need.

"People as things", "Marketing? Kill Yourself" and "never talk to cops"

To be fair to Mr Saunders, this is one of the better ones I've read
posted by fullerine at 8:12 AM on August 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


"We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is." KVJ
posted by pwally at 8:15 AM on August 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks for that. I love George Saunders.
posted by aka burlap at 8:31 AM on August 1, 2013


A few years ago I heard a George Saunders interview on NPR in which he mentioned that when he was younger he (like many writers) had a "Hemingway boner." You might be surprised how often I manage to work this phrase into casual conversation.
posted by Drab_Parts at 8:37 AM on August 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you haven't read anything by Saunders, and liked this piece at all, do yourself a favor and do so asap.
posted by deathpanels at 8:42 AM on August 1, 2013


reading this: "Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which 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)."

makes me think of this photo of George Saunders and his wife as young graduate students (saved on his computer's desktop), which, when I first saw it, I found so moving. It was featured in this Guardian essay.
posted by Auden at 8:47 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"People as things"

Huh?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:56 AM on August 1, 2013


"... There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin, for example."
"And what do they think? Against it, are they?"
"It is not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of grey."
"Nope."
"Pardon?"
There's no greys, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."
"It's a lot more complicated than that--"
"No it ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes-"
"But they starts with thinking about people as things…"

- Granny Weatherwax
posted by fullerine at 9:02 AM on August 1, 2013 [10 favorites]




I don't fully understand how Google Books works, but I had no trouble reading the entirety of the great Saunders short story 'Isabelle' here. It's only a few pages long.
posted by Simon! at 9:09 AM on August 1, 2013


CommComm will forever and always be one of my favorite short stories. It's inscrutable and challenging at first, but ends with a flourish and insight that burns deep.
posted by docpops at 9:13 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


liketitanic: I'd like to respectfully "disagree" with your your comment above. I'm not sure exactly what you're getting at, but it sounds to me like you're making excuses for why people can't be kind, why they can't get in touch with their "luminous place." I'd agree that being kind -- let alone altering one's viewpoint to be less "selfish" -- is both a hard and risky thing to do. But if folks like Ghandi and Mother Theresa (to name a few) can do it, why can't anyone? What are these cultural barriers that stand in our way? If the world was a bit kinder, might there not be just slightly less of a pressing need for social struggle, and wouldn't that be a good thing?
posted by nowhere man at 9:23 AM on August 1, 2013


I have the Tenth of December on my desk. Waiting for the right time. I've heard so much good, from so many folks, I don't want to spoil it with other things pulling at me
posted by DigDoug at 9:23 AM on August 1, 2013


"But selfishness built this country! Get out of here with your nanny-state crap!"

-- all grown-ups I knew when I was a child; they died grasping and lonely but full of family-values.
posted by Give my rear guards to fraudway at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2013


As someone who has been an Ellen, who has known many Ellens, I found this terribly sweet. Kindness is building bridges, celebrating difference in unity: inviting those unlike us inside to mingle instead of locking them out in solipsistic tantrums.
posted by byanyothername at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


But if folks like Ghandi and Mother Theresa (to name a few) can do it, why can't anyone?

Somehow I get the feeling that telling people that no matter how hard their life is, it could be better if they could just be Gandhi won't go over well.

"Sorry your life sucks, but you have to be kinder. Especially when other people won't."
posted by CrystalDave at 9:38 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why do people here always read things into comments and then stretch them to completely absurd conclusions? I was suggesting (not telling) folks that if people like Ghandi and Mother Theresa could manage to choose kindness (and they faced a few difficulties) why can't others? Does that make any more sense?
posted by nowhere man at 9:49 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that Saunders is a professor at Syracuse University (and he was a couple years ahead of me in the graduate creative writing program there, back in the proverbial day). He's also a MacArthur fellow (and I know that will push some buttons, both good and bad, for many folks). Personally I think his work is terrific, but understand it's probably not everyone's cup of tea.

If Saunders' remarks on kindness remind anyone of Buddhist sentiments, it's probably because he practices (Nyingma school) Buddhism.
posted by aught at 9:56 AM on August 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


What happens when you try to be kind is something of the theme of The Semplica-Girl Diaries, and also why it's so hard. Indeed the guy writing the diary is just trying to be kind to his family in the first place.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:57 AM on August 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


"...err in the direction of kindness."

"We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is."

Can we please, please do that here at MeFi? Assume good will, read comments in the better possible light, praise what's good, and ignore what's imperfect, that kind of thing. A lot of members do it a lot, but some days, some threads are bitter.
posted by theora55 at 9:59 AM on August 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


I was suggesting (not telling) folks that if people like Ghandi and Mother Theresa could manage to choose kindness (and they faced a few difficulties) why can't others?

I think it's a little like the reaction in the diaper thread to people saying, "If my mom could wash cloth diapers in the bathtub and hang them on a clothesline, why can't other people do that?"

Some people find compassion comes naturally and easily. For some people it's hard, especially if they've been on the receiving end of unkindness or poverty or other suffering. Some people's suffering seems to be for them an inspiration to show compassion to others; other people seem to have been made bitter by suffering.

I think it's simplistic (and lacking in compassion) to say that the difference is just that some people "choose" compassion.
posted by straight at 10:09 AM on August 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hermenaut: Philip K. Dick - "the answer to the question 'What is Human?' is: kindness, empathy" :P don't be a dick!
posted by kliuless at 10:10 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


nowhere man: I feel like you are somewhat misreading liketitanic's point. I don't think it's a question of excuses so much as a question of consequences. When you are pretty far down on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the general law here of "be kind to everyone all the time" I believe can become pretty silly. When the price of your kindness is that you or yours will genuinely suffer in a meaningful way, then whatever kindness you are talking about is actually an unkindness toward someone you already love.

Saunders was addressing college graduates for less than 10 minutes, I think it's ok that his advice was not completely universal.

And liketitanic, I agree: we should try and build a world where everyone can choose to be kind, where we call can assume loving intentions in everyone we meet.
posted by macrael at 12:02 PM on August 1, 2013


There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind. KV

Baby, you've gotta be cruel to be kind. NL
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:10 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah well, OK. We are all welcome to our opinions, right?

Some people find compassion comes naturally and easily. I don't think so -- it's hard for pretty much everybody.

...other people seem to have been made bitter by suffering. Right, and this might be a factor in they're being unkind to others, which perpetuates the cycle. But everybody's life has some suffering in it. Where do we draw the line on where unkindness is/isn't OK?

When the price of your kindness is that you or yours will genuinely suffer in a meaningful way... I don't think I agree with your definition of kindness, which by my definition always aims to relieve suffering, not increase it.

I agree: we should try and build a world where everyone can choose to be kind, where we call can assume loving intentions in everyone we meet. I agree too, but I'm not sure how you can build this world without encouraging everyone to be kind, if only according to their abilities as you suggest.
posted by nowhere man at 1:18 PM on August 1, 2013


Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.

I'd like to think this is true, and there's surely lots of evidence that it is. But if we were to Venn-diagram Saunders' precept here, then imagine a great big circle of all the kinder gentler old people, and then imagine another circle, small and mean, that overlaps with Saunders' big circle only as regards people they regard as their tribe or kin or immediate family or allies or whatever. And in the very black centre of that second circle are people who, as they age, shoot their friends in the face on hunting trips and make them apologize for getting in the way of the bullet. (For example.)

And the shitty part of life is that the people in that mean little second circle mop up an inordinate share of the world's power and influence while the rest of us are busy reading George Saunders' marvellous stories and being more loving and less selfish to each other and all.

And so it goes, as another great upstate New Yorker liked to say.
posted by gompa at 3:14 PM on August 1, 2013


The first thing I read by Saunders was a short story entitled The Falls in the New Yorker, it's so funny, so fun, such good writing. It was a great place for me to start, might be for anyone else, too.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:00 PM on August 1, 2013


George Saunders for Kurt Vonnegut 2013
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:15 PM on August 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


But everybody's life has some suffering in it. Where do we draw the line on where unkindness is/isn't OK?

Unkindness is never OK. The question is, Why do some people rise above their suffering to act kindly while others don't? And is there any way to help those of us who have been made bitter by suffering (or those who seem callous and indifferent for no apparent reason) to become more compassionate?
posted by straight at 11:29 PM on August 1, 2013


Unkindness is never OK. Agreed.

The question is, Why do some people rise above their suffering to act kindly while others don't? Hypothesis: Because some people choose to make the effort to err on the side of kindness, to forgive?

And is there any way to help those of us who have been made bitter by suffering (or those who seem callous and indifferent for no apparent reason) to become more compassionate? Hypothesis: Encourage (show?) them to try to be kind and forgive, because in doing so they may benefit themselves, their family, their neighbors, and their planet? Because we all ultimately want kindness bestowed upon ourselves?
posted by nowhere man at 7:32 AM on August 2, 2013


straight: "Unkindness is never OK."

Except... there is something to be said for 'tough love' in certain circumstances, no?
posted by zarq at 7:44 AM on August 2, 2013


Except... there is something to be said for 'tough love' in certain circumstances, no?

Though problematically some people define 'tough love' as something like 'confronting a loved one who has a drinking problem' and others as things like 'giving the finger and blaring one's horn at the driver of a car who obviously incompetently paused too long at a traffic sign'.
posted by aught at 9:17 AM on August 2, 2013


Good words. I took these to heart: "Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now."

I'm a classic fancy-white-guy writer fan (DeLillo, Pynchon, DFW, Lethem), and I also ♥ Vonnegut, but for some reason, Saunders doesn't pull my chain. Or maybe he does. I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and liked it OK, but not enough to read more. Too much other stuff to read ...

He's like a toned-down version of Mark Leyner. Or who's that other guy ... 100 Brothers ... Donald Antrim. If I want absurdity, I want balls out.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:32 AM on August 2, 2013


Lovely! A good, funny speech and some new novels added to my read-these list. Thanks.
posted by abecedarium radiolarium at 8:51 AM on August 4, 2013


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