Friday, November 4, 2016

Congratulations, By the Way by George Saunders

This book is the convocation speech George Saunders gave to the 2013 graduating class at Syracuse University.

George Saunders is the kind of old white guy that we want to give us life advice. He doesn't have many answers, and I argue this makes his advice even more valuable. He has only a few good hints, gleaned after a lifetime of rough and tumble. His dedication at the beginning of the book mentions his grandparents, in loving memory. In the course of the speech he tells us that when we become parents we know what sacrifice is and what it takes to love another. He hopes that we apply those lessons as the educated adults that we are, and maybe not wait until we get there, as parents. To know it, and to act on it. Now.

Convocation speeches are not just for graduates, ever. They are for those who aspire, for those who hope one day to graduate to better life management, to a happier, more fulfilling existence, for those who still need advice. That probably includes all of us. Even George Saunders.

George Saunders is my kind of guru. He is funny, articulate, self-deprecating, smart, and unassuming. He doesn't pretend to be something he is not. He is a fiction writer who is flummoxed by humans, and yet is someone who has figured out a few things in his life.

In this speech Saunders paradoxically brings up death. Just to remind us that this moment--it is just a moment. That a life is justifiably filled with plans, hopes, dreams, striving, and that this is good, necessary, and normal. But there is something we don't want to forget as we make our plans because it puts everything in order, and perspective, and that is death. We are not alone and striving in the world, but we live with others. We will have lots of opportunities in our long lives to choose to be kind or not. He recommends "to err in the direction of kindness." Because nothing else matters, in the end.

Every time I read this speech I cry in the exact same place. I wonder if you will, too. I cry when he says how proud our parents are on this day of our graduation, I cry because I know how much my parents did to get me to that place. How much they gave up, how much they loved, how much they hoped. I cry because I know what the parents feel looking at their kids graduating. How proud, yes, relieved, hopeful, etc.

Anyway, this book is about going after things that matter, like kindness. Because in the end...and in the beginning, and in the middle...that's all that matters.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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