Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Little Kinder Than Necessary

I recently came across an article in the New York Times that reprinted author George Saunders commencement speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. The speech’s simple yet insightful and profound message was too wonderful not to share with all of you. In the speech Saunders shares with students some words of wisdom on life and regret, stating “What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs…No. I don’t regret that…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.” He adds “It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than try to be kinder.”

Saunders poses the theory that we’re not kinder because we believe (erroneously so obviously) that we’re 1) the center of the universe, 2) separate from the universe, and 3) indestructible. While we intellectually know better we perceive it as such and therefore put ourselves and our needs over those of others – long story short – we’re selfish. Lucky for us, life has a way of sometimes knocking us down a peg or two over the years and reminding us that no man (or woman) is an island; that we need others and others need us.

Being kind or kinder than necessary seems such an easy feat but one which sometimes due to selfishness or even at times expediency (it’s easier not do anything) we sometimes neglect. Kindness isn’t exactly measurable or quantifiable – you can’t use a yardstick for it – especially since its impacts can have far reaching effects beyond our comprehension, but its impact on daily life is undeniable, as can be attested in our own lives. There are countless simple acts of kindness bestowed upon us throughout our lives which stay with us as a treasured memory forever. A seemingly insignificant act of kindness will touch our hearts and endear that person to us by the simple fact that they cared.

I have such an example in my own life. I’ve always been a loner and nerd, which is the worst thing to be in middle school but even more so if you face the unfortunate circumstance of making a very poor hairstyle decision that leads you to being the only white girl in your class with an afro. Ugh…it was like painting a bullseye on my back for all the bullies and mean girls. Of course, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone said something which they did, but Robert Smith defended me. Robert was an African-American boy in my class; he wasn’t my friend, we might have exchanged a handful of words prior to that day and an equal amount after that day, but when they came with their snickers and barbs he stood up for me. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he said, I think something to the effect that my hair was part of the way God made me (it was a Catholic school we went to) but I’ll never have the words to thank him for that simple act of kindness because it meant the world to me. I saw him in a movie theater (where else) many years ago; he looked relatively the same (other than a few extra pounds in weight and inches in height) and seeing him still brought a smile to my face.

It’s silly really to think that such a simple gesture could mean so much to one person, but it can, and if we all took the time to share a simple act of kindness – a shared umbrella on a rainy day, a warm meal with a homeless stranger, a held door or friendly hello on your way in to work – the world could be a better place. Sometimes the words are easier said than done, as we struggle with the pressures of our daily life – work, health, bills, family, love (or lack thereof). We keep our heads down as we trudge through life and like Saunders said we focus on our little world, our problems, our fears and worries, and we forget that those around us are fighting an equally hard battle; they’re carrying similar burdens.

Reading Saunders speech I was reminded of a passage which I highlighted in my Kindle from a book I read last year, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. In the book, a school director addressing an auditorium full of fifth and sixth graders at a middle school graduation tells his students about a book,
“In Under the Eye of the Clock by Christopher Nolan, the main character is a young man who is facing some extraordinary challenges. There’s this one part where someone helps him: a kid in his class. On the surface, it’s a small gesture. But to this young man, whose name is Joseph, it’s…Well, if you’ll permit me…He cleared his throat and read from the book:

‘It was at moments such as these that Joseph recognized the face of God in human form. It glimmered in their kindness to him, it glowed in their keenness, it hinted in their caring, indeed it caressed in their gaze.’”
I found those words incredibly moving when I read them and still today. So, let’s all of us reading this make a rule that:
“wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God…”
And if you don’t believe in God, then “whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in.”