Although its been almost three months since author George Saunders spoke at Syracuse University’s commencement ceremony,
his speech recently began to receive a lot of attention. And its about to get an even wider audience.
The Associated Press reports that Saunders’ address will be immortalised next year as a book. Titled “Congratulations, by the Way” after a line in the speech, the book will hit stores in Spring 2014 courtesy of Random House.
The speech is funny, moving, and meaningful, and is certainly deserving of all the accolades it has recieved so far. Saunders hits on major themes important to recent graduates — from regret to opportunity to, most importantly, kindness.
In one of the most poignant parts of his talk, Saunders describes a girl who joined his class in seventh grade. The girl — who he dubs “Ellen” — was small, shy, and wore “blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.” He goes on to say:
When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it … So she came to our school and our neighbourhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After a while she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Eventually, Ellen moved away. Even though Saunders was never mean to her, something still bothers him over 40 years later, he says.
Here’s his brilliant takeaway from the seemingly inconsequential situation:
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.
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 kinder.
Saunders graduated from Syracuse in 1988 and is currently an English professor at the university.
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