On Kindness

Photo via flickr user Jennifer
Photo via Flickr user Jennifer

“The great Syracuse poet Hayden Carruth said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was mostly Love, now.”

Loving the fiction of George Saunders, I recently picked up his published graduation speech Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. I recommend the short read. Like This is Water by David Foster Wallace or The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow, this is one to pull off the shelf now and again in hopes of self-refinement. Here, Saunders simply entices us to be more kind.

Saunders says there are three, possibly Darwinian confusions that keep us from being kind. We wrongly believe that:

1. We are central to the universe

2. We are separate from the universe

3. We are permanent

These untruths keep us from being kind and generous. There are things we can do, however, to counter these untruths. He lists education, art, prayer, conversation with friends and meditation as examples. Oh, and aging helps, too:

As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish– how illogical, really. We come to love certain 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. Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.

He creates an image of the self getting smaller as the love gets bigger: “YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.” And he mentions having kids as a helpful tool in this process. I can say, now caring for a newborn, that my ego has softened. My elbows and angles are rounded out a bit. I am slower, kinder. I strive and grasp and cling less. I cuddle and coo and love more. I will go a day without doing a thing to forward my agenda or promote my ego. Looking back on that day, I realize I spent it loving my baby. I know, more deeply than I did before, that I am not permanent. I am not the center of the universe, nor am I separate from the universe.

Being part of a worshipping community, at its best, does this work of helping us lean toward kindness. Church, when it is done well, reminds us of the three untruths that Saunders lists, and invites us back to the luminous place of big questions and big love, where the ego softens and kindness abounds. Once we know what it feels like to be in that place, we must nurture it and grow it so we can recognize when we stray and come back to it. That is the path, the way, the truth, the life.

Published by Ellie Roscher

Ellie Roscher is the author of How Coffee Saved My Life, and Other Stories of Stumbling to Grace. She holds a master’s degree in Theology/Urban Ministry from Luther Seminary and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

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