“The need for kindness and all the things working against our achieving it”


George Saunders (photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times)

If you’re reading this, I’d wager you’re a pretty kind person. After all, you’re visiting Idealist—likely looking for an opportunity to help someone or learn something about the world or otherwise make use of your altruistic inclinations. And good on you!

But kindness is a curious thing: few would argue its merits, the cultures and religions of the world have long lofted it, we often recognize it as the basic instinct behind all our good intentions and the actions we take to make them real—so how can it seem at times so scarce, so elusive, so hard to maintain?

The concept of kindness often comes up in the works of bestselling author George Saunders. In this excerpt from the convocation speech he gave to Syracuse University’s 2013 graduating class, he articulates a few of his thoughts on why kindness is important, what obstacles can keep us from being as kind as we could be, and how we can maximize our kindness potential. Read the beautiful speech in its entirety here.

…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. 

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

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include… well, everything.

…Quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. 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.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Have you been inspired to better practice kindness? Tell us your story in the comments.


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Comments (11)

  1. Kris writes:
    August 22, 2013 at 10:02 am

    For more on the beauty of kindness, read Saunders short story, The Tenth of December.

  2. April Greene writes:
    August 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks, Kris! I consider myself a Saunders fan, but haven’t read that one yet. I’ll check it out.

  3. Michael writes:
    August 22, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Yes, sure.. but the world is made up a of all the elements, including fire.

  4. Najee writes:
    August 23, 2013 at 1:32 am

    Recently posted the whole speech in my website, too.
    Really something to chew on. Let’s speed up the kindness.


  5. Karen Moyer-Grindell writes:
    August 24, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Just Beautiful!

  6. llbenoit writes:
    August 25, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    I want to learn how to say “no” I am always kind to other people because I feel sorry for human being

  7. Raffreds Northman writes:
    August 29, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Idealism Philosophy: How Many Ways to Get Money (Except Working in the Company)

    A lot of people in this country have a high idealism. They are not only from political circle, but also among the celebrities and common people. Then, why idealism is often questioned by many people? Why did the idealism was considered something of a paltry even tend to be possessive for some people?
    According to Rahmat Fredy Sinaga (Jakarta, 2013), idealism is a way of thinking where someone considers what he did is ideal or perfect. Based on its function, idealism is divided into two types: Introvert Idealism, and Extrovert Idealism. Introvert idealism is idealism that aims for the attainment of self. While the extrovert idealism is idealism aimed at the achievement of others.
    Approximately every person has a sense of curiosity that gives rise to the desire, so that the learning process occurs. This learning continuously will cause an action to have it. This is called the achievement. Everyone has different goals. It caused by the process of experience that happen in them life.
    I still remember, in the era of 80s in Indonesia, how proud the parents if you have a child who holds engineer. In due time, not many people are able to become an engineer. In the era of 90s, the trend changed to the doctor. Parents send their children to medical school just for a prestigious image. Whether is it true or not? Trend continued until the beginning of 2000. In 2001, the trend is spinning again. Companies need a lot of Information Technology experts, so that the computer school and courses are built everywhere. Start from unqualified course to branded universities. But, this trend does not last up to 10 years because it quickly turned into a business school trends. The trend was still booming until now. Parents who send their children to business school are great. Therefore, the economics faculty and business school registrants increased dramatically from year to year. In addition the low cost, many graduates are taken by the company. Because the interest is so high, universities raised the tuition rates in the faculty of economics. In addition, there are several university set up special units for business school (SBM-ITB in Bandung, adapting the concept of MIT Business School in Massachusetts). They claimed that this was done for improvement quality of international quality graduates, become entrepreneurs and other reasons.
    Outside the academic world, there is a world of entertainment. Art school also had become a trend in Indonesia, but did not last long though, because it was thought to be artist that we do not need a formal education. Unlike in the United States, where a lot of available acting school, dancing school, singing school, and other art schools, in developing countries, the definition of smart is different. They defined smart as mathematicians, physicists, biologist, and others. Meanwhile, developed countries think that smart is an ability that one person had a talent yet others do not have (any field of study). Meanwhile, those skilled in painting, room decorating and design, playing musical instruments, singing, song writing, cooking, baking, are not considered fool. Creative people were also considered fool. Asian people are still rigid in defining the meaning of intelligent, except some countries like Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and India.
    As we know, India has a huge film industry called Bollywood. This industry is able to contribute foreign exchange for the country, building infrastructure, government, and subsidies. It is also finally applied in South Korea with K-Pop entertainment industry. Now, let us look at a comparison between Malaysia and Indonesia which is a neighboring country. When my father’s school days in the 70s, many Malaysian citizens take a school in Indonesia. But now, many Indonesian citizens take school in Malaysia. It has happened because the Growth Index of Malaysian Human Resources is increasing. Malaysia is able to improve athletes achievements, singer achievements, traffic and transportation system improvement, until the quality of education. Malaysia just have ¼ smaller total of higher education than Indonesia, but their several universities got to 300 World Best Universities (Times Higher Education Supplement). So, what makes the different in both the neighboring countries? The answer is the curriculum. A good curriculum should always change with the times. In many Asia countries, university graduates teach to job oriented companies. Students get a high GPA to get into prestigious companies. While in developed countries, students are educated to make a new job opportunity (entrepreneur). In this world, how many thousands of bachelors have a GPA above 3.5? While the quota of each company hold only tens of new employees. Does the company able to accommodate all of them? It does not.
    Idealism should be something that helps a person to a better life. Idealism should not make someone a spoiled-minded individual. If you do not get a job in the company, does not mean your life is death? Many ways to get money, one of them is by opening a small business. Let us follow the example of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and people who dropped-out by the college. They can live in prosperity with the creativity and talent that they have.

    Raffreds Northman.
    Email: raffredsnorthman@gmail.com
    YouTube: Raffreds Northman
    Facebook: Raffreds Northman
    Twitter: @raffnot

  8. Chris writes:
    September 2, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Kindness is actually an inherent characteristic of the universe. Guess where we came from?

  9. […] And lest we forget why we do this social change work, April Greene from Idealist reminds us. […]

  10. Curtis writes:
    September 9, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    “Err in the direction of kindness.”

    Sounds like he is selling kindness at the margins. We can’t all do all the things, and maybe to be kind we must decide where we are going to constrain ourselves (like not going to Machu Picchu so we don’t completely wreck it forever). Kindness isn’t always a zero-sum-game, but sometimes it is.

    Don’t oversell—like Dr. King said “Interestingly enough, in a revolution when hope diminishes, bitter hatred develops toward the very people who built up the hope, because in building up the hope they were not able to deliver the promises.”

  11. Some Recent Links I Recommend | Polly Castor writes:
    January 21, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    […] Climate Panel Cites Near Certainty on Warming Radioactive Groundwater at Fukushima Nears Pacific The Need for Kindness and All the Things Working Against Our Achieving It How to Make a Penny-Covered Desktop Being vs. Buying MIT Welcomes Makers with New Maker Portfolio […]

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