Congratulations, by the way

Author: George Saunders

Type: Non-fiction, essay

Full title: Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts On Kindness

Published: 2014

I read it: September 2015


This entry is really pushing (or shrinking) the limits of what you could call a “book,” but it deserves a proper review because someone actually did take the time to bind Saunders’ brief piece into an attractive hardcover. This is a “slightly expanded version” of a commencement speech Saunders gave in 2013. Like the classic one by David Foster Wallace, it packed enough wisdom to reprint.

Saunders’ message is that our primary regrets in life will be those moments when we failed to be kind. He says that if you can learn to temper your own selfishness, you can “find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you.” And this is something that should start sooner rather than later.

The text is on the right sides of each page, while the left sides present a simple illustration of stars in a black sky that slowly connect over the course of the book. The whole thing takes less than five minutes to read, but serves its goal well and is a rather helpful tool in our ongoing mission to wake up and live in a consciousness that matters. Saunders’ proposed kindness is not a passive one, but rather an active and engaged one. I can think of times when I was snide or dismissive—the obvious failings—but the essay asks me to consider times when I only did fine (acted “sensibly,” “reservedly,” or “mildly”) and did not achieve an active kindness.

What’s an example of an active kindness? A week before reading this book, my family experienced two instances.

The first was our boy’s first trip on the city bus. Laura sat with the kids while I paid. Right after inserting my money and asking for transfers, the bus driver apologetically explained that the fare was free that day and he shouldn’t have let me pay. A few stops later, a passenger walked by us to disembark and handed us a few dollars to cover the fare. Then a couple days later, someone paid for our entire meal when we tried a new restaurant in our neighborhood. Wow.

In both of these cases, perhaps we looked like a busy family that could use some help. Regardless of our need or lack of it, these strangers assisted with no questions asked and no expectation of equal exchange. It was humbling.

If you’ve read this far, then you’ve spent more time than it would take to read George Saunders’ entire speech. I encourage you to check out a copy or buy one for a recent graduate. It’s quite the message.

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