When I recently stumbled onto a scene complete with cap and gown at James Madison University with students practicing for their upcoming graduation ceremony, I thought them all so young and unprepared for the world they will now become more a part of. Despite my inner congratulation to them, I was also reminded of a story from Isaac Bashevis Singer about how the Jews in the Polish shtetls he wrote of rarely admitted good fortune. And if they did, they would quickly add “kinahora”–let the evil eye not see.
It seems that all through May it’s graduation time. One cannot but be happy for the students who seem to have a special smile of joy to have crossed the finish line, some sprinting like colts, others stumbling like marathon runners on their last leg. It’s also fun to gauge the faces of parents, also seemingly happy and beaming with pride but somewhat decidedly clothed in relief that the long four (or five or six) years are over and that their kid has finally arrived at his or her rite of educational passage.
For the moment, one could forget the economy and what kind of future so many of these kids face. No one was asking, “Yes, that’s great that you’re now a college graduate, but tell me again what a philosophy major does to pay the rent and buy the groceries?” By the way, I’m all for philosophy majors, not to mention those who have chosen English, or history, or art appreciation to ask their parents to fund. After all, I come from their roots and can still hear my engineer father conflicted over my own graduation nearly half a century ago. He wanted me to be a builder of bridges, not someone who at the time didn’t know one end of a hammer from another.
So it was by coincidence that I just happened the same day to have been listening to The Bob Edwards Show on my SiriusXM car radio and was delighted to hear Bob talking with George Saunders about his new book, Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. Saunders, a major force in today’s fiction who’s been described as someone who can look a little stern, “as though he just stepped out of a tent at Antietam,” had delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University last year. His mentor Tobias Wolff described him this way: “He’s such a generous spirt, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”
As I listened intently to the conversation, I was in thrall. In this highly competitive and hardscrabble world where so many young people are under pressure to learn something “practical” in their studies so they can get a secure job that pays well, Saunders asked the students at their graduation to pause and reflect on the meaning of education, especially a “liberal” education that is intended to help a lad or lassie coming through the rye to learn how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life rather than to calculate how much money their chosen field promises to make them. The New York Times (31 July 2013) was so impressed that it printed the entire speech. As one critic wrote: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital.” Like the nineteenth- century Jews in Poland’s shtetls, Saunders knows and writes about the fleeting nature of fame and success, that there’s nothing permanent in this life and disaster can come at any moment. Be wary. What we must do is ground ourselves in the firmness that comes from a conviction to living a good life of respect for others.
He immediately caught the attention of his audience when he said,
“Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
“And I intend to respect that tradition.”
He then challenged them to focus on one question: When talking to older people, ask them, “What do you regret?”
He goes on to list some of the more colorful events in his life that he would be entitled to regret. One of the more arresting ones was his adventures skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra with his mouth open and seeing about three-hundred monkeys sitting on a pipeline, all pooping into the river. In hindsight he did not regret the experience, even though he got deathly sick and stayed ill for seven months. He then went on to describe other adventures that most of us would would probably regret and about which we definitely would prefer that no one ever knew any of the details.
So, what was it that he truly regretted? You could hear the sadness in his voice when he said that he regretted most how he and his fellow seventh graders had treated one little girl in the class who was terribly shy and who had become the punching bag to most of the kids who teased her without mercy. Even though Saunders did not really poke fun or try to humiliate her, he still sees her “gut punched” look in his mind’s eye over forty years later. Despite waking up one day and learning that she and her family had moved away during the school year and that he would never see her again, he still is back in the seventh grade regretting that he didn’t do more to defend her. He sees his sin as one of a “failure of kindness.” Again, like those Jews in the shtetl, this little girl bequeathed to him a sense of wariness about the fickle nature and ultimate insignificance of popularity and “success.”
Instead of feeding his audience of bright-eyed students anxious to get on with their lives some cliched bromides, he challenged them to conjure up the face of the person they remember most fondly, those people who showed them the most undeniable feelings of warmth. These people would undoubtedly be the ones who were the kindest to them. So instead of having a goal of making your first million by the time you’re thirty, he urged them to adopt a different, ultimately more satisfying goal: Try to be kinder.
He knows that most of us believe irrationally in one way or another that we are central to the universe and that our stories are the most important and interesting. We believe, especially in our youth, in our permanence and indestructibility. Of course, we know on some intellectual level that everything that lives–including us–will eventually die and perish from the earth. In our mind’s eye, we know that death is real, for sure. At the same time, we tend to delude ourselves into grasping at the straw that death only applies to you, but certainly not to me.
If we only pretend that we want to be less selfish, more aware of what’s happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving, what kind of fabric are we weaving? If in reality we continue to disregard others, trample them as we try to get to the head of the herd, if we compromise our integrity and cheat, devise schemes that shortchange our fellow travelers, if we ignore the plight of others less fortunate, if we do not lend a helping hand and share the food from our tables with the hungry, what kind of human being have we become? As ancient Greek theater should have taught us, the gods have various ways to cleanse us of our hubris, to bring us down, to teach us humility, albeit it at a great price. Our real job is to outfox the gods by rising up and becoming greater human beings.
Saunders is optimistic that we can all become kinder with a little effort. He also embraces the idea that our progress becomes easier as we grow older when some semblance of wisdom shows us how useless it is to be selfish. After the gods of life have kicked our butts more than a few times, perhaps after someone else has proffered a hand to help us up off our behinds, we will perhaps have the opportunity to rejoice in life and truly appreciate how we are all linked together in a long line. As our old comrades in arms and family and friends start to drop away, we can reflect on the meaning of being less selfish and more loving. We can change our aim and live a life where others matter as much as we do and that we can make a difference, even a small one, in their lives if we try.
And most importantly, education should teach us one great lesson: the pursuit of superficial accomplishment, no matter how important and essential it may appear, is ultimately unsatisfying. What we foolishly consider to be success is what the gods dangle before us. It is difficult to achieve such success if you make it a pursuit measured solely in tangible ways. After all, how many buckets of gold, how many classic cars in the garage, how much public adoration can we accumulate at the expense of our humanity? The pursuit of false success can take up our whole lives, while the big questions go untended.
His advice at the end is to do all the things you can to make you a kinder and more loving person. This doesn’t mean you can’t be ambitious and kick all the buckets you can imagine. As he says, travel, get rich, get famous, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having them tested for monkey poop, though), but as you go, “err in the direction of kindness.” Do what your heart tells you, but choose the ways that would incline you toward the big questions and avoid the ones that would reduce you and make you trivial. If you live this kind of life, there should be no fear of the evil eye.
In a beautiful conclusion, he says that,
“That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality–your soul, if you will–is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”
At the end of his speech, I walked away with a new skip to my walk. After doing a bit more research on Saunders, I found the following quote from an earlier story that was printed in Gentlemen’s Quarterly about a trip he had made to Dubai. To me, his thoughts capture what I believe so passionately:
“Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”
I wish Saunders had given the commencement speech when I graduated. I don’t remember who gave it or what they said. I suspect the kids at Syracuse will not forget George Saunders.