Shambhala Sun | May 2014
George Saunders on Kindness
The famed writer talks about a little girl named Ellen, a
failure of kindness, and a convocation speech that went viral.
True story: A
longtime Western Buddhist was meeting with a famous old lama for the last time.
The master beckoned the student to approach. The student came close, figuring
he was going to receive the master’s pithiest and most secret instruction. The
master whispered his final teaching: “Be kind.”
Kindness is, with
wisdom, the essence of the Buddhist path, and of life itself. Perhaps there is
only one thing we long for more than to be treated kindly. It is to be kind
Our deep longing
for kindness is reflected in the surprising response to a simple eight-minute
convocation speech. It was delivered by the great American writer George
Saunders (Tenth of December, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia)
to last year’s graduates of Syracuse University, where he teaches. Three months
after he gave the speech, a transcript was published on the New York Times
website, and it went viral.
Saunders told the graduates a simple story: of
Ellen, a shy girl in his seventh-grade class, and his failure to be kind to
her. His meditation on such “failures of kindness,” and why they’re our
greatest regret, is now a small, inspiring book entitled Congratulations, by
the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.
When I spoke to
Saunders, he was shy about his unexpected role as a spokesman for kindness and
humble—unnecessarily so—about his Buddhist practice. But in an era when values
like kindness and compassion are often put down, he’s talking thoughtfully and
bravely about what needs to be at the very core of our lives and our society.
How did you
decide on the theme of kindness for your convocation speech?
I first gave a
version of this speech to my daughter’s middle-school graduating class. Because
I knew and loved those kids, and also didn’t want to look like an old fogey, my
intention was to be really truthful with them, even at the cost of my own dignity.
First I considered
the banalities you would normally use on an occasion like this. But, I thought,
these kids are better looking than I am, they’re in a better school, and they
probably won’t make the same mistakes I did. So anything I could tell them
they’ll figure out on their own, and they need to make their own mistakes
anyway. The only advantage I had over them was about forty years of living.
When I looked
through those forty years, I found I didn’t really regret that much. But there
was one thing that seemed urgent to say. I wanted to tell them that if I could
go back in time, there was one thing I really would change—the times in my life
when, because of anxiety or fear, I missed a chance to say a kind word or help
somebody out. Scanning the horizon of my life, those were the deeply regretted
bumps in the road I wish I could go back and change.
“failure of kindness” you talk about involved Ellen, a girl in your
seventh-grade class who was being bullied. You weren’t mean to her yourself,
but you failed to be kind to her.
conceit of the speech was, “What do I remember of being in the seventh grade?”
But there really was nothing except this one thing, which stung. When I was a
kid, I was a very enthusiastic Catholic, and this was the first time I felt
myself fall away from myself. I kind of knew what Jesus would have done in that
situation, but in the heat of the moment I thought, “I can’t do that. That’s
too hard.” It’s like I was watching myself and was a little disappointed that I
had failed in that way.
When the speech
went out there, I heard from many people who said, “I knew a girl like that
too” or “I had a similar failing in my life.” Maybe we all remember when we
first fell away from that pure vision of ourselves, and it sticks in our
If failures of
kindness are our greatest regret, is that because being kind is our greatest
aspiration, our deepest heart’s wish?
And it’s our
greatest ecstasy. Those times when the differentiation between yourself and another
person vanishes in a kind of spontaneous moment of outreach are deeply, deeply
If you cast your
mind toward the people in your life who’ve been kindest to you, you feel an
incredible rush of warmth and gratitude that never goes away. I dedicated this
book on kindness to my grandparents, who believed in me no matter what I did.
Not for any objective reason, but just because I was me. They knew me inside
and out and nevertheless approved of me. I think that creates a kind of
gratitude you never forget.
When you’re young
and have the feeling you’re loved, you sort of feel it’s the world loving you.
The quality of that love gets turned around, and that’s how you regard others.
So if someone has been kind and generous and selfless to you once, you know the
possibility exists. You internalize that, and in your future dealings with the
world, you assume that’s possible.
A couple of
months after you gave this speech, it went viral on the Internet. What was your
on the day of the speech it was no big deal. I think about a third of the kids
were asleep. It wasn’t a sensation. So I was gratified but mystified. I didn’t
quite understand why it had that effect.
Actually, I was
happy the talk was only eight minutes long, because I could tell a story about
a failure of kindness and give a little idea of why it happened. If it had been
a twenty-minute speech, I’d have been in trouble. At eight minutes, I could
sort of say, Hey everybody, be kind! But the next step is real tricky.
Let’s say we all resolve to be kind—what do we do? That’s where the real heavy
spiritual lifting starts. How do we know in a given situation what would
benefit somebody? How do we know that we’re not just being big egotists and
intruding when we aren’t needed? The more I think about it, the more
complicated it is. It’s like a trap door opens and you get led to the really
deep spiritual questions.
Since the Reagan
era, there’s been a concerted campaign to denigrate emotions such as kindness
and compassion—things Margaret Thatcher called “wet”—and promote more
“realistic” values such as strength, competition, and tough-mindedness. Perhaps
the response to your speech means people are hungry now for more kindness in
their lives and in our society.
I think the
American psyche right now is a bit like someone who has left their house and
left something valuable behind. And even when we do talk about kindness, we do
it with a bit of an apologetic wince. Certainly politicians do. But a human
being without some kind of striving for kindness is really hobbled. It is hard
to know how to live if kindness and sympathy and generosity are considered
second-rate virtues. We’re kind of not human beings in that case.
invigorating to just say it, you know. I’m a guy from the South Side of
Chicago. I’ve been in a lot of fights in my life and I’ve done a lot of rough
jobs, and I’m not afraid of being considered untough. It’s kind of nice to say
that these are indispensible virtues and we can’t go ahead without them.
There’s no point.
Maybe it’s some
kind of blowback from the Reagan era, but when someone talks about kindness, we
think of a bearded guy in a turtleneck sweater playing an acoustic guitar and
kind of whining. But Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela and all these
great people weren’t afraid to be quote-unquote weak. Lincoln was willing to be
mocked, to take the lower place, to be patient with his enemies. But really he
was the strongest person in the room. He could endure a lot of abuse if he knew
that in the long run, his acceptance of that abuse would bring about a positive
result. His gentleness and compassion and patience were all symptoms of his
Many people feel
that we live in a dangerous world, and we can’t afford to let our guard down.
say to me, in general I agree with you about kindness, but what about Hitler,
what about terrorists? I think we’ve been misled—and I see this all the time on
the news—by this idea that we always have to be girding our loins for the next
big showdown with somebody or other. We act as if the wolf is always at the
door, so we’ve got a gun pointing out the window. But actually the wolf is not
that often at the door, so we can afford to go a little easy.
of the time if you just do your best to be kind, you’re better off. It’s the
basic things, like trying to have good manners, keeping your assumptions about
the other person a little open, being willing to revise your opinion. And even
these are pretty tricky. The times when you’re asked to do something about
Hitler are pretty few and far between.
years old and I’ve lived in a lot of circumstances, high and low, and I’ve
never gotten into a really extreme situation. When I’ve come close and had the
presence of mind to err on the side of negotiation and humanizing the
situation, it’s always gone better than when I’ve tried to steer toward
I keep in mind that
quote from The Philadelphia Story: “The time to make up your mind
about other people is never.” So I try to almost mechanically remind myself of
that—to see when my resistance or temper flares up or when I find myself
pigeonholing somebody. That would take up most of our life, just to try to do
Perhaps it’s all
a self-fulfilled prophecy. We live in an unkind world because we believe it’s
an unkind world.
The thing I’ve
noticed is that if you go out into the world ready for confrontation, then
confrontations find you. But if you go out with a sort of diffusing energy, the
world reads that and feels more friendly toward you. So I think there’s a
In the media and in
our political rhetoric, we’re told don’t be a sucker, be firm, be strong, push
back, they’re trying to get you. If you buy into that—even on a molecular
level—the world smells it on you. Whereas—and here’s where it sounds corny—the
world responds to you differently if you go out thinking, alright, I’m going to
pretend that everybody out there is my brother or my sister, and if they are
temporarily behaving like they’re not, I’m going to pretend that they’re just
confused. I’m going to insist, through my mannerisms and my tone of voice, that
I see them at their highest.
I don’t mean to be
naive—there are obviously times when a person has to stand their ground—but I
would argue that the best form of standing your ground is to be gentle. It
often takes a lot more guts to be gentle than it does to be confrontational.
Is there any
connection for you between kindness and writing?
I do a lot of revising—hundreds
of iterations—and I will work for years and years on a story. A really
wonderful thing happens in that process. In the early drafts, you may create a
caricature or a character that you’re looking down on, getting some jokes out
of. But the story’s form doesn’t like that. The story’s form doesn’t like
condescension or puppeteering, so it responds by being boring. The reader feels
it’s a static story, that the writer is holding all the cards and dominating
As you try to
address that in revision, the characters mysteriously become fuller, because as
you reconsider them you’re actually loving them more. You’re paying closer
attention to them. You’re listening a little more closely, and so the sum total
of the story gets funnier, smarter, faster, and the characters come to be more
equal to the author.
When you go through
this process, you’re making the prose tighter and smarter, but also kinder.
You’re looking with a little more genuine curiosity at the character, and you
do it through the prose.
For example, you
might start off a story with “Jack was a jerk.” But the story says, “That’s a
kind of a boring sentence. Can you give me a detail?” Okay, let me revise:
“Jack snapped at the waitress.” That’s a little better. But it’s still a bit
foggy, so your subconscious might say, “Jack snapped at the waitress because
she reminded him of his dead wife.” And suddenly you’ve come a long way in
terms of sympathy, from “Jack was a jerk” to “Jack was out of sorts because he
was thinking about his dead wife.”
I think that
process can sort of train the writer to enact the same procedure with real
people. Maybe somebody bumps into you at the airport. Your first impulse is to
say, “Asshole.” But because you’ve trained yourself in revision, you say, hmm,
let me think about this a second. I wonder why he did that. Then your mind
gives you all kinds of reasons because you’ve done it yourself so many times.
It’s a good way of training oneself in the flexibility of judgment that we
talked about earlier.
To what extent
was your speech inspired by your Buddhist practice, or was it simply a
reflection of who you are as a human being?
Hard to distinguish
between the two, I guess. I’m really a beginner, but I do try to keep my ears
open, and that was a place where my actual experience and the tenets of
Buddhism suddenly came together.
In my writing work,
I’ve noticed that if you do anything with real intensity, and with a real
interest in the truth of the matter, then it ends up being dharmic somehow. Whether
it’s basketball or photography or whatever, if you’re really, really interested
in the truth, then you’ll end up with something that looks and feels very much
like dharma, it seems to me.
Yet you do offer
some specific Buddhist analysis. You told the students that we fail to be kind
because of three fundamental misunderstandings about who we are: we believe
that we’re the center of the universe, that we’re separate from the universe,
and that we’re permanent. These are classic Buddhist definitions of ego.
When I thought
about me and this little girl in the seventh grade, I turned my mind to what
was wrong with me, to what was my problem. I think the answer is that, at that
age, I believed so strongly in my own separateness from her, my own primacy, and
in protecting my own status that I wasn’t able to make the right move. And
those are dharma principles.
Originally I had
laden this section with some Buddhist terms, but my wife said I should take
them out. She said I shouldn’t make it seem overthought or dogmatic. And of
course, the dharmic ideas are so beautiful and pure that anyone who had lived
and experienced these things would see the basic truth of them. Because for me,
that’s what dharma is—really, really trying to get to the bottom of this with
no deflection and no confusion and no agenda.
This points to
one of Buddhism’s great strengths. It doesn’t simply tell us to be kind. It
shows us in concrete terms why we’re not, which gives us a path forward.
That to me is the
most wonderful thing about any vital spiritual practice. It doesn’t necessarily
say, stop doing that. Or if it does, it says, here’s how to stop doing that.
Because you can only get so good with sheer willpower. You have to look into
the way things actually work to empower yourself to do better.
Here is a wonderful
metaphor I sometimes use with my students. Imagine you’re on a cruise ship in
heavy seas. You’re the only person who’s stable, and everybody else is moving
around in a crazy way. You decide to have mercy on them, and that’s pretty
But I think a
better model is to imagine you’re on a cruise ship, and the surface is made of
ice, and you’re carrying six trays, and you’re wearing roller skates, and
you’re drunk. And so is everybody else.
So nobody’s the
boss and the situation is unstable. There’s no fixed point. When I think of
life that way, it sums up the proper level of mercy and tolerance. We really
don’t know what’s going on, so our feeling of sympathy or empathy is related to
our mutual lostness. Everybody’s lost at once.
Advice to Graduates (and all of us)
by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, by George Saunders, published by
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.
Those moments when another human being was there, in
front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:
Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable
feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
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