This past summer George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. What advice does a bestselling American writer give to some of our nation’s best young minds about to enter the workforce? Try to be kinder. Below is an an excerpt from his speech that was published here in the New York Times 6th Floor blog.
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.As a parent, kindness is something I find myself endlessly trying to teach my kids. “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Be tolerant and embrace the differences in others. Include others in your game. Shake an opponent’s hand after the soccer game. Lower your voice.” Even as I correct their behavior, there are the moments - like when my toe hits the corner of our sofa or when Andrew Luck throws an interception - that words of kindness aren’t rolling off my tongue. I keep hoping for that day when I can put a checkmark next to the home learning objective: Be kind. But, no matter how many lessons that I give, I realize there is another lesson waiting.
We might agree that kindness is important quality to teach our children, but do we put a premium on this trait like other attributes? I recently tested this by asking several people this question: “Would you rather be smarter or kinder?” Nearly everyone I asked said smarter. It’s possible that my small sampling of people are heartless overachievers that have already reached the maximum limit of human kindness. Perhaps the sampling is not reflective of how most would answer, but I’m guessing most would pick smarter. Being kinder just seems too subjective - just a little squishy. We live in a world with winners and losers, where we strive to find our “competitive advantage.” We recognize and reward hard work and sharp minds. Doesn’t the nice guy always finish last? Is Saunder’s message of “try to be kinder” really a message that will appropriately guide recent college graduates?
This past week the world lost a kind and loving man, John Finlay, who died of complications from pneumonia. John worked as a technician in our Danville Schools’ technology department from 1998 - 2012. During that time, a lot changed in the world of technology. But, throughout all our changes, something remained constant: John’s genuine, kind-hearted nature. As a result, there was an amazing outpouring of support, love, and fond memories shared this week while those of us that loved him coped with his loss. I was able to hear stories of his deeds that range from him putting on puppet shows at his church to the simple way he greeted and welcomed strangers.
These stories and his loss not only remind me of what a good man that John was but certainly causes me to reflect on my own life and the power of kindness. I am in education because I truly want to make a meaningful difference to this world. When my time comes, I hope that I have done something that will have made the world a little better. This perspective often causes me to work long hours on a project that I want to get “just right” or lie awake at night because I know the day is ending with too many teacher help tickets still open. I often justify the time that I spend working on weekends and evenings to myself because I believe the work matters. I know the project I’m working on will benefit teachers, which will help our students gain new knowledge and/or skills that will ultimately give them a brighter future. But, through this persistence and dedication to bring a brighter future to our students, I feel that I too often lose sight of bringing a brighter day to the people in my lives. And, when my time comes, I doubt few will stand up and talk about the number of iPads deployed or the number of closed help tickets. As George Saunders contends, the memories (good or bad) will be the way I have made people feel.
Kindness certainly consists of many small moments - saying “good morning” or “thank you,” listening sympathetically to a frustration, or making someone laugh when they most need it. But, being kind is also about doing what is right, even when it’s what’s not easy or popular. It’s about having the courage to disagree with others’ ideas when necessary, the compassion to defend and assist a person being ridiculed or someone in need, and the confidence to believe that you can help. For a quality that is a little “squishy” to talk about, it’s rock hard to keep practicing.
At John’s funeral, I was struck not by the sadness in the room (although there was certainly grief among so many that loved him) but by the joy that so many shared through his acts of kindness. Even though his life ended too soon (at the age of 58) with little warning (he had been sick only for a couple weeks), I felt that he probably died with little regrets.
Try to be kinder.
As I reflect on John’s life and then my own, I recognize that Saunder’s message wasn’t just good advice for college graduates, it’s good advice to me and all of us. We can all choose to be kinder.