Err in the direction of kindness

“[T]o 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.” ~ George Saunders

Kindness Matters

Following up on yesterday’s post on time as the coin of our life, I want to share a couple of seemingly unrelated videos and articles that have helped me to tie together some loose thoughts.

First, if you watch or read no other commencement speech this year, let it be George Saunders’s convocation speech to the graduating class of Syracuse University (2013), in which he tells them, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness” and that while they are busy doing “the ambitious things” that, at that their age, they should be doing, always to “err in the direction of kindness.”

What could be simpler, more important, or more difficult to sustain over a lifetime?

I have only recently discovered the work of George Saunders but instantly became a devoted fan. Last spring, I took the risk of introducing his short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” to my students—a risk because this particular story defies easy categorization and requires at least a couple of readings to begin to grasp, and the class was an introductory level “humanities for engineers” course, not an upper division literature class. I need not have worried, however, because Saunders’s unfailing sense of humanity, of decency, of kindness, even and especially in the midst of choices of unkindness, spoke as clearly to most of the students as it first had to me.

His Syracuse speech hits home for me in a personal way. This summer has brought many momentous changes for our family: the marriage of our only child a few weeks after his and our daughter-in-law’s graduation from college, and their move to Boston where they will start law school and graduate school in the fall. Through it all, especially as I have watched how kind and gentle they are with each other, I have experienced a profound settling of priorities that has been at least a couple of years in the making. In the words of George Saunders,

“…as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.” Read More

I feel and welcome this sense of self-diminishment. This is not the same as living through one’s child or giving up on one’s goals. I still have ambitions as both a writer and a person, maybe even more so than when I was younger. But my priorities are clearer, and I’m more willing than ever to try to be kind rather than right, to “err in the direction of kindness” rather than in the direction of success.

The second article, linked to on Facebook by editor and social media expert Jane Friedman, questions the value of spending our time churning out content “designed solely to suck people in”:

“Can we honestly believe that our ‘content marketing’ is a good use of their resources? ‘Yes, because it adds value.’ we tell ourselves. But what does that even mean? Can we honestly say that ‘engaging with our brand’ is a healthy, ethical use of their scarce, precious, limited cognitive resources?” Read More

For writers, especially, learning to juggle private writing with public promotion has never been more challenging or confusing than it is now. Blogs (like this one). Email newsletters and subscriptions. Websites. Facebook. Twitter. Twitter chats. LinkedIn. Goodreads. And that’s just the tip of the social media iceberg. Some people seem to keep up with it all and even enjoy it. Others, like me, struggle with maintaining the bare minimum of an “online presence.”

I can’t help wondering, in the end, how many coins of my life I want to spend on it all, and how I can ensure that I hold back enough coins for writing, for kindness, and for love.

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