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I recently read the convocation speech George Saunders, New York Times best selling author, delivered to Syracuse’s graduating class of 2013. The speech was insightful, down-to-earth and in a word, simple.
While speaking to the conventional themes of all graduation speeches: the tendency in each of us to focus too much on “success” and the risk that chasing after it will consume your whole life, George speaks to the basic idea that what the world needs more of is, simply put, kindness. He encouraged graduates to follow their ambitions – to get rich and famous, travel extensively, etc etc but in doing so, always err in the direction of kindness.
One useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
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.
CLICK HERE for the full speech. It’s a great message, I promise.