The Direction of Kindness

Kindness happens one act at a time.

Kindness happens one act at a time.

We’re now past graduation season and college grads are working (hopefully) or at least enjoying their final summer before entering the real world.

There are certain types of graduation speeches that receive accolades and some of them become enshrined. This one, just discovered by this writer at The New York Times, is by George Saunders. By Saunders’ own admission, it riffs on a common theme—the theme here being kindness and living a life that’s kinder and gentler to others.

One of the more popular graduation addresses that now get trotted out every year is this one by the late David Foster Wallace, titled, “This Is Water.” He delivered it at Kenyon College back in 2005, three years before he committed suicide. The talk defended the broadness and benefit of a liberal arts education, but more importantly, I think Wallace captured life, in its mundaneness, the long periods of boredom (time spent waiting in lines, dealing with people that don’t seem to care, etc.) and how to remain human through all of this. Below is one brief snippet; I’d encourage you to listen/read the speech. You can access audio of it here (pay attention to Part II):

[P]lease don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

We all have a choice to be kind and empathetic, or we can be like most everyone else; self-absorbed, narcissistic, concerned only with our own personal issues.

Make it more than a cliché. The choice is yours.

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