Erring in the Direction of Kindness: An Interview with George Saunders

Small acts of kindness can be a sort of ritual self-reminding of what we are and what we’re meant to do down here.

Small acts of kindness can be a sort of ritual self-reminding of what we are and what we’re meant to do down here.

Small acts of kindness can be a sort of ritual self-reminding of what we are and what we’re meant to do down here.

Interviewed by Chris Dollard

George Saunders is the bestselling Man Booker Prize-winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo, among many other titles. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and GQ. In 2006, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” He is a 2013 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction for Tenth of December, and he teaches at Syracuse University.

In 2013, Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University, in which he encouraged graduates to “err in the direction of kindness.” The speech was soon published in the New York Times, and it complements The Gottman Institute’s belief that “all individuals are capable of and deserve compassion” and that “compassion must begin with ourselves.”

When you gave your speech, did you anticipate the amount of attention it received, and do you hope that by engaging in small acts of kindness toward one another, we can foster a greater capacity for empathy within “the human family”?

The response that day was, to say the least, muted. I found myself pathetically wandering the reception crowd, fishing for compliments. The best I got was, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who gave that speech?” And then I said yes, and he sort of nodded in this noncommittal way and walked off to the snack table. Then the speech went on The New York Times website and seemed to really hit a nerve.

My belief is that, actually, this whole mess down here on earth only holds together via small acts of decency and kindness. We tend to overlook or minimize the effect of the small things, but that is really what a culture is – that collection of thousands of small, habitual, decent moves that collectively make life somewhat predictable and “normal.”

The small acts of kindness can be a sort of ritual self-reminding of what we are and what we’re meant to do down here. Although, of course, like any moral belief, this approach can also evolve into something automatic and irritating and reductive. I think “kindness,” properly understood, might, at times, be quite fierce. It would be “whatever produces positive results.”

Do you view kindness as an intentional behavior, and do you believe that it could similarly counteract negative interactions (which you term as “failures of kindness” in your speech) between not just romantic partners, but also between individuals and communities?

I think “kindness” can be understood in all sorts of ways. For me, the most useful thing is to try to remember to start each day saying: “The whole point of this gift of time I’ve been given is to try to be more loving and then act accordingly.” Of course, most days I forget to even have that thought and just get up and start running around servicing my ego and my anxiety and knocking things over and getting all irritated about how damn easy things are to knock over these days because of the big faceless corporations.

But I’ve found that if I can remember to have that intention, everything is more interesting. Because kindness is really a sort of “gateway virtue” – you start out with that intention, but then find yourself running into problems. It’s all well and good to say “be kind” but what is the kind choice if, say, you encounter a barista who, it seems, has been weeping? Comfort her? Inquire as to why? Just be quiet and leave her alone? Hard to know, in the abstract.

So, right away, we are into a different moral/ethical question, that might have to do with, say, awareness – being maximally data-receptive, so we know the right thing to do, for this person, at this moment. And that’s not something one could “phone in,” or prep for, by just saying to oneself, “Be kind.”

Your speech mentions that “your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving,” which implies that once an individual commits to being kinder and more loving, that will result in even more kindness as they age. Do you believe that, when kindness “snowballs” and begins to envelop a romantic relationship, that such kindness could transcend that relationship and radiate into non-romantic relationships?

Well, that’s a bit beyond my area of expertise, but I do think that trying to increase one’s loving nature can have a beautifully simplifying effect on one’s life. Again, I’m only rarely able to get there, but on the few occasions on which I’ve blundered into this state, it felt like I’d acquired a kind of superpower: all questions answered more easily, the world a simpler place.

I’ve also noticed that when a person is in a genuine, happy, confident, kindness-enabled place, people feel it, and react to him in a different and more open way – which, in turn, expands the range of outcomes possible from that interaction.

Toward the end of your speech, you offer a prediction for the audience in the form of a “heartfelt wish:” “[A]s you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.” Could you explain this process of “self-diminishment” from your experience as a father?

This is the one part of the speech about which I often catch grief: “If you think people get kinder as they get older, you should meet my father-in-law, ha ha!” I suppose this was a bit of wishful thinking on my part. It seems, actually, that people get to a crossroads of sorts. As age begins to take its toll, some people get bitter and others…not. And I suppose that has to do with both disposition and luck.

My observation about myself has been that, as a person gets older and the body starts to fall apart/slow down/get less wonderful, it starts to sink in: “Ah, even I am not permanent.” And that gives a person a different and (potentially) fonder view of the whole thing. We’re just very briefly passing through, despite what our ego believes.

Likewise, having kids: once you’re entrusted with another life, you become newly aware of your usual self-absorption. You might start to see self-absorption as the freakish, Darwinian, appendage that it is. And you feel your fondness for this little kid trump your self-fondness – and what a liberation that can be. You vanish a little. Or, as we used to say in a Catholic hymn: “We must diminish, and Christ increase.”

We also encourage parents to prioritize maintaining their relationship, as Drs. John and Julie Gottman claim that “the greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you.” Do you think that the process of “self-diminishment” also includes expressing more kindness and empathy for your spouse, which will model a healthy relationship for children?

Yes, for sure. Although kindness toward the people closest to us can be the biggest challenge. They know us, and we might have habits together that are hard to break free of. Easy to be kind in the abstract, but harder in the midst of a familiar fight, when you are completely sure of your rightness and good intentions, whereas that other person, etc., etc.

But: if a kid sees someone behaving lovingly towards someone they love, that gets into their bodies and they will emulate that behavior without even knowing they are doing it. I’ve noticed that in myself – my parents have some very good habits of mutual support, that I found myself trying to enact in my own marriage. And I also have seen how my wife’s patience with, and equanimity towards, me, has informed the way our daughters handle their relationships, with men and with friends and at work, etc.

In the title story of your recent short story collection, Tenth of December, the protagonist, after a near-death experience, finds himself deeply appreciating his relationship with his wife as he remembers a moment from whey they were newlyweds:

“Somehow: Molly.

He heard her in the entryway. Mol, Molly, oh, boy. When they were first married they used to fight. Say the most insane things. Afterward, sometimes there would be tears. Tears in bed? Somewhere. And then they would—Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face. They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—”

You once told me that this may be the most truthful thing you’ve written about love. Where specifically do you find the deep truth of love within this passage, and how did you come to realize its power and accuracy in describing a crucial moment within a marriage?

This was a big moment for me as a writer, simply because, at a moment when I needed this man to have a deep and sincere feeling about his wife of many years, instead of inventing something, I just turned to my own experience.

My wife and I have been married thirty years and have been through so many things together, and I know she has seen me at my worst – petulant, defensive, broken, pissy, etc. – and yet she’s always had my back, which is an incredibly powerful thing. Easy enough to have a good relationship when you partner is an attractive, in-control, nice guy, but what about those (more numerous) other times? The person on the receiving end of that sort of love gets quite a gift.

We always carry around an ideal vision of ourselves (the US we like) but we are also bothered by the existence and periodic appearance of that other US (the one we see as an unlikeable aberration). That sort of love basically says: “No, those are both you and both are acceptable.” Which, in turn, empowers you to really see and understand and improve the parts of yourself you’re not crazy about.

According to Dr. Gottman’s research, married couples who are happy can easily recall positive stories from their past, such as how and when they first met, while unhappy couples tend to remember more negative memories. In your speech, you ask the audience, “Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet.” Why do you think that kindness has such a powerful capacity to help us form and recall meaningful memories?

That’s really interesting. And makes perfect sense. Someone who feels, “This relationship is awful” will tend to interpret past events in that light. It makes me think that we are always “novelizing” – narrating the past to inform the present moment and enable the future.

So, I think we have to walk a fine line there. To tell a happy story about an unhappy incident in the past might be to falsify /propagandize. For me the most productive thing is to try and tell a true story about the past – one that doesn’t deny or cloak any negative or complicated elements, but allows them in…makes them part of the actual, and hopefully positive, present moment. I suppose the trick is to be bitterness-free, if possible. That is, to see any negativity from the past to have been, ultimately, instructive of useful to the present, positive, state of things.

In your speech, you encourage us to “[do] those things that incline you toward the big questions.” Recently, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman raise some “big questions” in her TEDx talk that focused on how we can create world peace by beginning at home with creating positive and empathetic familial relationships, which could then push us to be more empathetic with others in the world. Do you see kindness as a potential force for good in the world, a force that could push humanity toward being more peaceful and cooperative?

I know that, in Buddhist practice, this focusing of intention is very important – to say, essentially, “I pray that whatever I accomplish here goes out to benefit all beings, and not just me.”

Small acts of sanity ensure that the world in one’s immediate area is…sane. I once heard the writer Tom McGuane say something along these lines – that a system of interconnected small sanity zones builds out and makes a sane world. And that has the benefit of being a workable approach – one knows how to start, at least. If nothing else, working towards sanity and kindness in one’s own world (one’s own mind) means that, when insanity occurs “out there,” we will have a sane outlook on it – might be able to avoid making things worse, via our agitated reaction.

But having said that (and believing all of that), I also like to remind myself to be a little cautious about the need to justify kindness by claiming it could have some big overarching effect on the world. I mean, I think it does – I know it does – but I also feel that, for me, sometimes those grand intentions can serve as a sort of place on which to solidify ego, as I mentioned above. (I recall that quote from Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts:” “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”) When I was touring for the book, I found that a lot of people were all for Kindness but not that always that great at kindness, if you see what I mean. (One guy on a radio interview sort of snarled, “I’ve always believed in kindness! But people don’t GET it!”).

I guess that’s the trick of any sort of moral stance toward the world – we have to stay off of autopilot.

For those who are having difficulties within their marriages and may feel lonely or disconnected, what sort of advice could you offer to them based on your experiences as a writer and reader of fiction, as a teacher, as a father, and as a husband?

The one analogy that comes to mind from writing is simply that, at this point in my career, it’s more interesting to assume that every story is workable, and send renewed energy at a story when it hits a snag – assume the best of it, in a sense. And often, with patience, that story will come alive again and rise to the (expanded) occasion. Which is always a happy outcome.

If you want to build a deeply meaningful relationship full of trust and intimacy, then subscribe below to receive our blog posts directly to your inbox:

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

A graduate of the Syracuse University MFA program in Creative Writing, Christopher Dollard is a former professor of literature and writing and an accomplished poet and essayist. Check out more of his work on his website here.