The Regret of Failed Kindness

06subsaunders1-blog480-v2Every once in a while a graduation speech goes viral. That in itself is remarkable to me–think about how many graduations happen across the country and the world every spring. There are probably hundreds of great speeches, many of which we’ll never hear or hear of.

So when one is notable enough to be published elsewhere or go big on YouTube, I pay attention.

Bill Gates had one a few years back. David Foster Wallace had the one about water. And I vaguely remember one from a pretty normal guy at a high school graduation last year…I can’t even remember what he said, but it was some sort of counterintuitive advice that made all the sense in the world. [Update: I found it. It’s the “You Are Not Special” speech.]

Then there was George Saunders, an author I’ve never heard of. But based on his impressive facial hair, I’m sure he’s famous for at least one Civil War novel and a haunting collection of short stories.

I don’t know George Saunders. But I now know that he wrote one of the most beautiful, touching graduation speeches I’ve ever heard or read.

It’s right here. Read it. It’s not long, and he’s not wordy. Every word counts.

I’ll let you take from it what you will. But I’ll say this: I’m struck that he decided to talk about kindness. Specifically, failures of kindness. Opportunities when you could have been kind to someone or even just noticed that someone existed, and instead you didn’t. Saunders is haunted by those moments.

I love the message. I absolutely love it. Especially since he roots kindness in everyday acts. You don’t have to volunteer in Africa for a year to be kind. You can be kind right here, right now. You can be good to someone in your office at this very moment. You can decide today to treat someone better than you did yesterday.

I really, really love the message. The speech made me want to be more aware of other people, more aware of opportunities for kindness.

The only hard part for me to read was about the impact of having children on one’s capacity for kindness. Saunders says, “If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.”

I’m struck by it because I know his words to be true, and yet I still don’t know if I want to have kids, and I wonder if that inherently makes me a selfish person since I am choosing not to expand my capacity for kindness in that way. Not that I’ve made a final decision, but I still can’t possibly see a place for children in my life. I’m only 32. I have so much more to accomplish before most of my time is taken up by a child.

Bah. I can worry about that later. For now, I’m just grateful for Saunders’ words. In fact, I’m grateful that a speech about kindness went viral. That says something good about the human spirit.

What is your takeaway from Saunders’ speech? Did it dredge up any memories of failed kindness or inspire you to expand your own capacity for kindness?