Last week saw the publication of a small volume by author George Saunders called Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, the 2013 convocation speech he gave at Syracuse University, where he teaches creative writing. This speech eventually was posted on The New York Times website and quickly became a viral hit.
The 64-page book’s official description tries to answer the question of why the speech has been so widely appreciated: “Because Saunders’s words tap into a desire in all of us to lead kinder, more fulfilling lives. Powerful, funny, and wise, Congratulations, by the way is an inspiring message from one of today’s most influential and original writers.”
Kirkus Reviews says of the book:
…(I)ts self-deprecating tone is as pitch perfect as one would expect from Saunders, and the advice it imparts seems sincere and ultimately more helpful than the usual platitudes, as he explains how ‘most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving’ and as they mature, perhaps become parents, begin to see how soul-deadening selfishness can be and how the struggles of ambition can put one on a seemingly endless cycle. There’s plainly a spiritual underpinning here, as the author writes in favor of ‘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.’ The loving selflessness that he advises and the interconnectedness that he recognizes couldn’t be purer or simpler—or more challenging.
A Sampling of Quotes
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.
Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you—and go after those things as if nothing else matters. Because, actually, nothing else does.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
Buy it for an upcoming graduate, as suggested by Kirkus. And/or watch (some of) it. With the release of the new book the publisher has arranged for this abridged animated version: