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 with a hefty message. It is technically the transcript of a Commencement Speech George Saunders (born December 2, 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, a 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.

Wislawa Szymborska - Here
“Billions of faces on the earth’s surface…” writes Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. Human reflections in the dome of the British Museum. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.
“All great artists draw from the same resources: the human heart, which tells us all that we are more alike than we are unalike” wrote Maya Angelou. Spreading “ripples of kindness” throughout England, the Take Heart organization crochets pocket-sized hearts and spreads them about with notes saying “You are not alone.” Learn more.

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.

Saunders’ 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.

George Saunders.

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 kindest to you, I bet.

We underestimate how deeply we affect each other—this human continuum enabled by our emotional intelligence and pedestalled 2,000 years ago by Marcus Aurelius, reiterated by Emerson, and embraced by Mary Oliver, and practiced by each of us in ways we fail to realize.

Charlie Mackesy's illustrations for "the Boy, the mole, the fox and the House" featured in The Examined Life Library.
“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

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 kindness that opened the arms of the Provencal to Peter Mayle when he relocated to the South of France to start anew.

Kindness might not be all we have, but it will be what we remember.