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?

3 thoughts on “The Regret of Failed Kindness”

  1. This hit a little too close to home for me to comfortably go about my day. You see, I failed to be kind yesterday….not once, but TWICE. While many people would excuse my unkindness, I know in my heart that I was wrong to miss these opportunities to love people.

    Yesterday, I was driving down a busy highway when I saw a solitary figure on the side of the road. I was going 55 mph, so I only got a quick glimpse, but it was enough. It was Alisha, a woman I met at another location last year. That time, she was near a parking lot. This time, she was standing in the rain, on a busy highway, holding a sign that I assume was asking for help.

    I drove by. I didn’t stop. I didn’t turn around.

    I made excuses. I’ve got someplace to be. It’s raining. I only had a granola bar in my car, and I had no cash. I would have to make a u-turn on a busy highway and then make another one and then be in the right lane, etc……

    But…..I drove by. I didn’t stop. And God help me, I didn’t turn around.

    THEN… if God was showing me that He gives second chances, that He knows our sinful, unkind selves, He gave me another opportunity.

    On my way home, I stopped for frozen yogurt. I wasn’t hungry, I was just craving something sweet. As I pulled through the parking lot, I saw another woman. This one was standing in a completely accessible place, it wasn’t raining, and I had cash. She had a stroller with her and a child slept through the noise of the evening. Her cardboard sign said, “I have 3 children. Anything is helpful.”

    Our eyes met for a moment. She lifted the sign just a bit, angling it in my direction.

    But….I drove by. I didn’t stop.

    And yet again, I failed to be kind. I failed to show simple love to another human being. And now, as I sit and drink hot coffee on a comfy couch, ready to get into my car and drive to work….I remember my failed kindnesses of yesterday with such regret.

    So, George Saunders (and Jamey)….thank you for reminding me that kindness is important, even vital, to life. That I can love in such simple ways. That I can go beyond mere inconvenience to bring just a tiny bit of joy and love to a person’s life.

    I can only hope that God gives me another chance today.

  2. This is one of those things I try to live my life by. One of my stronger guiding decision-making facts in social encounters is that I want to be the kind of person I would want in my life. This speech worded it pretty perfectly, and I appreciate you bringing attention to it.

  3. Wow. Just wow. That was brilliant! I also found it on youtube for those who like watching more than reading.

    It’s all so true. I can remember every single instance where I failed to be kind, and I regret every one of them. You have no idea the impact you’ve just left on that person. If you follow through with being kind, how you have shown them the kindness and love of Christ, and the hope for humanity. If you fail at showing them kindness, you show them they don’t matter to you (or maybe anyone) and the complete selfishness in humanity. It’s just amazing the impact we can have on one person’s life.

    Our priest has been talking about how everything in life has an integrity to it. And we are called to respect that integrity. Whether it be using a hammer the way it was intended, or dealing with co-workers, friends and family. Everything and everyone has an integrity. Here is a link to his homily from 2 weeks ago that really struck myself and my husband, and many others that we talked with after Mass. He starts talking at 12 minutes in.

    I’d love to know what you think about his points Jamey. And anyone else for that matter! 🙂

    One of my other favorite readings about kindness attributed to Mother Teresa:

    People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
    If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
    If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
    If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
    What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
    If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
    The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
    Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
    In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

    Thanks for posting Jamey! 😀


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