'Here's something I know to be true, although it's a little corny, and I don't quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness'
Three months after George Saunders gave a convocation address at Syracuse University, a transcript of that speech was posted on the website of The New York Times, where its simple, uplifting message struck a deep chord. Within days, it had been shared more than one million times. Why? Because Saunders's words tap into a desire in all of us to lead kinder, more fulfilling lives. Powerful, funny, and wise, Congratulations, by the way is an inspiring message from one of today's most influential and original writers.
An expansion of a commencement speech passed around the web, this essay hits warm and tender notes without straying from safety zone of feel-good advice. In a tone by turns grandfatherly and fun-loving, renowned fiction writer Saunders (Tenth of December) identifies his main regrets in life as what he calls "failures of kindness." While his exploration of kindness initially promises to pull from science and history, it falls back on the maligning of certain self-focused beliefs already widely maligned: the belief that one is indispensable to yet distinct from the universe, and the idea that humans are eternal. Portraying common major life goals (raising children, succeeding in one's career) as part of a never-ending, accomplishment-based cycle, Saunders impugns the cycle for distracting individuals from the important questions, yet he does not adequately establish why pursuing these should hamper an investigation of the meaning of life. Nor does he address obvious counterpoints that children constitute a personal value of parents and that their pride is therefore an expression of personal joy. As life advice, the speech contains standard contradictions: seek the life that is most fulfilling to you individually, yet follow pursuits that will ultimately diminish your sense of self. His wording is genteel and his examples vivid, but the overall impression is that of a standard-issue secular sermon on loving one another.