Celebrated contemporary writer George Saunders’ stories are works of futuristic satire that sting with the dark truth of pessimism, but still have a moving sweetness at their core. Binging on his short stories is like binging on raspberries; they taste like candy, but they are still really good for you.
While many of his stories are emotionally moving and infused with a thread of kindness, they are still quite dark. Uplifting isn’t exactly a word I think of when I think of George Saunders, but maybe I have been thinking all wrong. His latest publication is Congratulations, by the way: some thoughts on Kindness a transcript of his 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University, where he teaches.
In honor of this release, his publisher Random House worked with Serious Lunch to produce a beautiful animation for an excerpt of his earnest and uplifting speech.
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” Saunders says as “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 the most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. But kindness, it turns out, is hard. It starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs and expands to include, well, everything.”
I think sometimes I fail offering kindness to others because I am afraid I am offering something I can’t give. I think that because I can’t profoundly do something to change some of the circumstances that is causing their suffering, I should just avoid the entire situation. But when I go down that rabbit hole of thinking, I am ignoring the truest thing about kindness: it can be the simplest thing. You don’t have to fix anyone’s life, you just have to see them as a person, with respect. Smile at them, make that human connection, be considerate of their needs. I’m still learning about boundary issues, having been given mixed-messages about them growing up, and I tend to default to an all-or-nothing situation where I either have no boundaries with a person, or I put up a steel fortress. You can have boundaries with other human beings and still shower them with kindness, I’m starting to learn. Like George Saunders says, “Kindness, it turns out, is hard,” but it’s worth it.