George Saunders on kindness

As spotted on The Dish today, George Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University on May 11 of this year (the entirety can be read here). It’s an ode to kindness, and begins with a recitation of various unpleasant experiences he has had and doesn’t particularly regret, followed by the one thing he does:

So 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.

Here is his conclusion, which is about as good a commencement speech ending as I expect I will ever see:

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.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

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George Saunders walks us through his desktop

Just back from a Q-and-A with Junot Díaz, about which hopefully more later. Looking something up about him, I was led just now via the ultimately unfathomable logic of hypertextuality here, to a Guardian series on writers’ desktops, wherein, it seems, they basically sit in front of their computers and comment on the icons, folders, photos etc they see… This one, published today, features George Saunders, and I liked this bit:

I’m not easily distracted, as a rule. Especially where writing is concerned. But I have noticed, over the last few years, the very real (what feels like) neurological effect of the computer and the iPhone and texting and so on – it feels like I’ve re-programmed myself to become discontent with whatever I’m doing faster. So I’m trying to work against this by checking emails less often, etc etc. It’s a little scary, actually, to observe oneself getting more and more skittish, attention-wise….

I do know that I started noticing a change in my own reading habits – I’d get online and look up and 40 minutes would have gone by, and my reading time for the night would have been pissed away, and all I would have learned was that, you know, a certain celebrity had lived in her car awhile, or that a cat had dialled 911. So I had to start watching that more carefully. But it’s interesting because (1) this tendency does seem to alter brain function and (2) through some demonic cause-and-effect, our technology is exactly situated to exploit the crappier angles of our nature: gossip, self-promotion, snarky curiosity. It’s almost as if totalitarianism thought better of the jackboots and decided to go another way: smoother, more flattering – and impossible to resist.

And this:

“InfanView” is an app that produces a list of all babies born in your area, ranks them for cuteness, and auto-sends each one a Facebook Friend request on your behalf. It’s good for building up one’s “fan base.” Ha. No – I think it’s “IrfanView“, and I honestly have no idea what the hell it is. I just went in and opened it and still have no idea. It’s a relic of something, but I don’t know what.