George Saunders

Congratulations, By the Way

“What I regret most in my life are my failures of kindness.”

Congratulations, By the Way is a simple read but a hefty message. It is technically the transcript of a Commencement Speech George Saunders (b. 1958) delivered in 2013 to Syracuse University.

But more deeply, it is a regret of meanness, a call for kindness and a study of legacy.

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentially, her Convocation Speech name will be “Ellen.” Ellen was small, shy… When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

The older we grow, the more we realize, life doesn’t fall evenly among the lines of those who are kind and those who are not. It is made up of a thousand, million points of opportunity to be kind or mean or silent and it is made up of us, individuals with free will and vulnerable hearts.

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… At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know, “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say “Oh, fine.”

Such things have been said before, by many. The power of this speech is that in simple presentation, it leaves room for our minds to make of it what we will. I returned to my own past. I’ve been that “Ellen.” I’ve also seen that “Ellen.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it. And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing. One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.

I think we know what comes next, but we need Saunders to say it. “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

If George Saunders didn’t exist I’m not sure we could have invented him. He was born in Texas (he often pushes an invisible frontier), grew up in Chicago (he has that Midwest humility), and worked early in life in geophysics on oil fields (so daring).

There is something other-century about Saunders, his latest work the Man Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most original novels I’ve read in ages. And takes a few reads to get through.

Saunder’s speech at Syracuse, where he earned an MFA and where he still teaches creative writing, was to his young self. We imagine. He sat in the very chairs he addresses. He doesn’t’ plead, he doesn’t preach. He simply states.

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 isn’t dealing with regrets, however. He’s talking about legacy. What kind of impact do we want to make on the world, what shall people say of us when we’re gone? Graduates, full of life and hope and dreams, are all elbows to the top, perhaps, Saunder’s notes, there is a different way.

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 kindness to you, I bet.

We don’t realize how deeply we affect each other. The things we remember, the kindnesses. And when we go, how deeply that matters. In fact, it might be all that matters.

It was with kindness that Rainer Maria Rilke responded to a young poet seeking his help; kindness that compelled Anna Deavere Smith to dig into her heart and vulnerabilities in “Letters to a Young Artist” and it was kindness that opened the arms of the Provencal to Peter Mayle when he relocated to the South of France to start anew.