The commencement speech that George Saunders delivered at Syracuse University a few months ago has been making the virtual rounds, and it’s easy to understand why. Saunders warms up the crowd with jokes about monkey poop and hockey blunders; the students are laughing, the grandee on the stage is laughing. But then he pivots and turns serious. Remembering an awkward and picked-on seventh-grade classmate whom he didn’t adequately defend, he says, “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.” Saunders goes on to speak in bracing ways about kindness; you can read the transcript here or watch the video here. As the speech nears its end, he offers this advice:
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 Theresa’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.
“Err in the direction of kindness” works as a bumper sticker—but it’s also profoundly unsettling, in a what-have-I-done-and-what-will-I-do-with-my-life kind of way. I’ve felt a bit knocked-around today just thinking about it. As a program for living, it leaves one unprotected—and yet what could possibly be more nourishing, more necessary? This afternoon, pondering such things, I felt that I had to (had to) read “CommComm,” that visionary final exit ramp in Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation. The story left me in tears on my office floor. “This is why I came back,” the murdered ghost-narrator concludes. “I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.”
Offering moral challenges, and the possibility of grace, under the cloak of jokes and entertainment: that’s Saunders’ self-appointed role in our culture.
In the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes, “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God. . . .” It almost reads like a graduation speech. Let me borrow from Whitman. This is what you shall do: Read or watch Saunders’ Syracuse address. Then read “CommComm.” Then see if you don’t agree with Etgar Keret, who once said, about Saunders, “If they ever shoot a commercial for humanity, he should star in it.”
PS: At David Foster Wallace’s memorial service in October of 2008, Saunders eulogized his friend:
I first met Dave at the home of a mutual friend in Syracuse. I’d just read Girl with Curious Hair and was terrified that this breakfast might veer off into, say, a discussion of Foucault or something, and I’d be humiliated in front of my wife and kids. But no: I seem to remember Dave was wearing a Mighty Mouse T-shirt. Like Chekhov in those famous anecdotes, who put his nervous provincial visitors at ease by asking them about pie-baking and the local school system, Dave diffused the tension by turning the conversation to us. Our kids’ interests, what life was like in Syracuse, our experience of family life. He was about as open and curious and accepting a person as I’d ever met, and I left feeling I’d made a great new friend.
And I had. We were together only occasionally, corresponded occasionally, but every meeting felt super-charged, almost—if this isn’t too corny—sacramental.
I don’t know much about Dave’s spiritual life but I see him as a great American Buddhist writer, in the lineage of Whitman and Ginsberg. He was a wake-up artist.
As readers of this blog probably know, Wallace delivered the commencement address to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005. I’ll try to map some connections between Saunders and Wallace, and between the two speeches, in Part Two of this post.