George Saunders on Kindness

Back in January, the New York Times ran a profile of the writer George Saunders which was so beatifying, I had to go and check out his work. I should have done so long ago. My friends J and M, both of who know the deeper secrets of recent American literature, had recommended him in the strongest possible terms. I am now halfway through Tenth of DecemberSaunders’ latest collection of short stories. And it does, amazingly live up to the hype, mostly.

I don’t remember getting this big of a buzz from a short story collection since I picked up David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Menhalfway by accident back in 2006. He is superb at inhabiting other people’s psyches, of letting the voice carry a story and of those sudden twists and shifts of form from story to story that keeps you having to creatively realign and reorient yourself to understand the rules of the fictional universe all over again.  

While he isn’t the second coming of Christ, or even of Chekhov, the collection is more than worth your time. So is googling around for the stories of Saunders. A lot of them are available online. Open Culture has the scoop on those.  

Point being: a few days back, the NYT ran a convocation address that Saunders gave at Syracuse University in 2013. Like his fiction, and Foster Wallace’s warmer moments, it gets me all warm and fuzzy and wanting to do better as a human. Saunders is a practicing buddhist, and the worldview is recognizable in his remarks, strengthening my belief (as a card-carrying atheist) that the buddhist worldview has a lot going for it. More on which later, I hope. For now, Saunders:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

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

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to 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.

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.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

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