Thursday, 12 March 2015

George Saunders puts kindness into students' minds

Full title: Congratulations, By The Way. Some Thoughts on Kindness
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 64 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Random House (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Speaking of high principles of morality these days – even trying to think of it without falling into the trap of pathetic clichés – is, let's face it, a helluva job. You need to forecast the yawns and counteract the sarcastic half-smiles before they have a chance to take shape. And that's a serious task. Put this predicament into an environment given to excesses in clichéism, like the Academia, and wait for the disaster to come.
In most of the cases, it will be there. You can count on it.
And yet the art of speaking well (i.e. interestingly, inspiringly, yawn-killingly) of such principles doesn't seem to have become extinct. A genre in their own right, convocation addresses have, in George Saunders or others like him, examples of resilience.
In the speech given at the opening of the year 2013 at Syracuse, where he teaches Creative Writing, Saunders appears to have set up a challenge for himself, one of the kind that writers are well used to: how to speak of the unspeakable, of something said so many times before that even a whisper of its presence is able to cause lesions to the inner ear?
There's one big point George Saunders makes in his lecture. And that point is: get the hell out of your high horses and remember to show traces of humanity. When put into these less inspired words of mine, this sounds a little patronizing, seemingly harmful to the seemingly unripe minds of the seemingly uneducated beginners. But Saunders is gentler in his approach, although he cannot be accused of beating around the bush to fill the time with the usual usuals of inaugural lectures.
At the end of the day this is a call to attention. Hey, you young minds, he says, you, the presumably uneducated but unfortunately well-trained in the business of academic submission, wake up before you fall asleep. This journey of yours, this fabulous thing you're about to witness, the event for which your parents have been depriving you of the felicities of young age in order to save the money you're about to spend without knowing; this thing – take good note! – is a dangerous thing. It's dangerous because it will keep depriving you of the same things your parents have been keeping you away from. (Once again, Saunders is gentler, but I took the liberty of – what should I call it – improvise!)
The thing under scrutiny, the one of whose absence we suffer the most, the one that stands uprfront in the title of the address, is Kindness.

Hands up those who don't know what kindness means!
See? The easiest thing in the world. It takes no brain to recognize it. But that's exactly where Saunders is going with his demonstration. Easy as it may be to spot, we're all deprived of kindness to an embarrassing extent. To see this embarrassment at its most horrible manifestation, all you need to do is go scan your past. Things will become apparent.
"I can look back and see that I've spent  much of my life in a cloud of things that have tended to push 'being kind' to the periphery. Things like: Anxiety. Fear. Insecurity. Ambition. The mistaken belief that enough accomplishment will rid me of all that anxiety, fear, insecurity, and ambition. The belief that if I can only accrue enough - enough accomplishment, money, fame - my neuroses will disappear. I've been in this fog certainly since, at least, my own graduation day. Over the years I've felt: Kindness, sure - but first let me finish this semester, this degree, this book; let me succeed at this job, and afford this house, and raise these kids, and then, finally, when all is accomplished, I'll get started on the kindness. Except it never all gets accomplished. It's a cycle that can go on... well, forever."
Okay, the one who's looking back is older than the great majority of those who attended the event of Saunders' speech. So, one would imagine, they don't have much to reminisce. They need more life to teach them better, while the age of wisdom is still far away. But that's not it. One doesn't need to have attained the age of Methuselah to be kind. Kindness requires people to do it and people to receive its benefits. So humans all over. Insofar as we're animals that require society to flourish, the primary condition is already fulfilled: everything around us is made of and by people. So take your pick. Choose the person you like best (or if you like real challenges, chose the one you think you hate) and exercise your kindness on them. It's how things in general get done: by doing. There will be results. Guaranteed – by George Saunders himself.
"Do those things that incline you towards the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality - your soul, if you will - is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare's, bright as Gandhi's, bright as Mother Theresa's. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly."
So don't just moan that Shakespeare is too high. That's the kind of admonition you would expect from an academic, right? And yet. The easiest excuse (also the most detrimental) consists of saying "I'm not worthy." But do you know what's needed to overcome the fear? Eliminate the negation in the sentence! That’s all it takes. Hocus-pocus and it's done.
Be kind to one another!