George Saunders: "Congratulations, By The Way"

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:53
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last spring, author George Saunders gave the convocation address for the College of Arts of Sciences at Syracuse University. Three months later, a transcript was posted on The New York Times website, where it went viral. Its message, be more kind, resonated with an audience far and wide. As graduation season approaches, George Saunders joins us to talk about kindness and why it's the message he chose to send. George Saunders is an award-winning author, a MacArthur "Genius Grant" fellow and a professor at Syracuse University.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:38
His new book is titled, "Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness." And throughout the hour, I'll be interested in hearing your thoughts on kindness. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. How good to see you again.

DR. GEORGE SAUNDERS

11:08:04
It's so nice to be back, Diane.

REHM

11:08:06
Tell me why you decided to deliver this convocation on kindness.

SAUNDERS

11:08:13
Well, I knew it was going to be 10 minutes. And I knew it would be probably a restless crowd. And I kind of scanned myself to say, what's urgent? What can you say quickly and urgently and from the heart, that would speak to a kind of a diverse crowd. And I worked through a few kind of phony, you know, phony ideas. And then it kind of just hit me that the one thing I really feel like I know after all these years is that, you know, basically, you know, it's corny, we're here to learn to be more sympathetic to one another.

SAUNDERS

11:08:44
And so I thought, it would be nice to be able to say to a room of, you know, kind of shining young people, that this is actually a tangible, valid, intellectual position. It's not just a gauzy, you know, sort of New Age concept. But actually kindness is a sturdy intellectual value.

REHM

11:09:03
Do you see more or less of it in our lives today?

SAUNDERS

11:09:09
Well, in teaching, I see more. I can't believe the high functioning level of the students that we have. I think, and out in the world of sort of media, it's terrible. You know, we -- my wife and I don't have TV up where we are or cable. And so when I come out and travel, I'm kind of stunned by how, you know, kind of snarky and aggressive a lot of the -- the sort of default mode is in the big-media culture. And I'm guessing part of the reason though that this speech caught was that most people know -- most people live by kindness, with your kids, your parents and stuff.

SAUNDERS

11:09:48
So we know it's real, we know it's important. But maybe we're getting a mixed message from outside that sort of devalues it and makes it kind of a second-tier value in a certain way, you know.

REHM

11:10:00
In the book, "Congratulations, By The Way," you write about a huge regret of your own. Would you read that for us?

SAUNDERS

11:10:12
Sure. Sure. "But here's something I do regret. In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her convocation speech name will be Ellen. Ellen was small, shy. She wore these blue cats-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had the habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it. So she came to our school and our neighborhood and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased. Your hair taste good? That sort of thing. I could see this hurt her.

SAUNDERS

11:10:50
I still remember the way she'd look after such an insult, eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After a while, she'd drift away, hair strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school her mother would say, you know, 'How was your day, sweetie?' And she'd say, 'Oh, fine.' And her mother would say, 'Making any friends?' And she'd go, 'Sure, lots.' Sometimes I'd see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

SAUNDERS

11:11:21
And then they moved. That was it. No tragedy. No big final hazing. One day she was there, next day she wasn't. End of story. Now, why do I regret that? Why, 42 years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even, mildly, defended her. But still, it bothers me. So here's something I know to be true, although it's a little corny and I don't quite know what to do with it. What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness -- those moments when another human being was there in front of me, suffering, and I responded sensibly, reservedly, mildly."

REHM

11:12:08
And the ideas that you presented in that reading, in that convocation, what did you see on the faces of the students to whom you were speaking?

SAUNDERS

11:12:23
I think I saw a good deal of discomfort, a sort of recognition that they had been either the receiver or the giver of that sort of treatment. I had actually given a version of the speech years earlier to our daughter's middle school class. And afterwards I got a lot of feedback from the teachers saying that, as they were watching the crowd, they could see certain bullying kids squirming and certain bullied kids actually kind of sitting up a little straighter, as if to say, yeah, that, you know, that happened to me.

SAUNDERS

11:12:48
And afterwards, the number of emails I got from people saying, I knew a girl like that or a boy like that, was kind of astonishing.

REHM

11:12:56
And then it gets posted on The New York Times website. What happened?

SAUNDERS

11:13:04
Well, the speech was given in May and it was fine. And I went to have my summer and then was in South Dakota with my wife and I got an email from a friend saying, your speech has gone viral. And of course when you're the one going viral, no one sends it to you, you know? So I kind of went, oh, okay. What does that mean.

REHM

11:13:19
What does that mean?

SAUNDERS

11:13:20
Yeah. And then only -- I had a book, "Tenth of December," before this, I was touring for. When I went back, then suddenly you could see about a third of the people said, you know, we read your speech. And so it was really amazing, you know? And also partly because the speech was written pretty quickly and it wasn't -- it's not an elaborate, logical construct. It's not even an essay. But it was really from the heart and I had a lot of fondness for the kids.

REHM

11:13:42
From the heart.

SAUNDERS

11:13:44
And, cut to the chase, I said, trust me, I'm 50 -- whatever I am -- 55. This bothers me. You know, I teach grad students, and wonderful grad students, and one of the things I've noticed is you never really -- teaching doesn't really involve giving them a totally new idea. In writing, it often involves just saying to them about an idea they already have 80 percent realized, yep, that's it. Kind of permission giving, you know. So I thought one thing that I wanted to do in this speech was say to this group of young people, if this registers with you, which I'm betting it does, trust me, it's a real thing.

SAUNDERS

11:14:20
It's a valid thing, you know, for you to take into your life -- just as valid as the ideas of success or, you know, getting a great job. This is -- this will serve you better than those things.

REHM

11:14:30
You know, we have heard in the past few months about so many issues of bullying and even suicide because of bullying. But it's not just young people we're talking about. It's -- certainly the evidence of unkindness is throughout our society.

SAUNDERS

11:14:59
Yeah, yeah. I think part of the thing is, I think kindness is sort of a symptom. It's a symptom of a state of mind that we have all been in or have, in my case, have blundered into. But that state of mind is one where the person you're interacting with is real to you. And his concerns are valid. And you might feel some tenderness for that person. And then the inclination would be to try to be helpful. That's a pretty simple thing. But once, if you're in that state of mind, then kindness is what results.

SAUNDERS

11:15:30
And in the speech, one of the things I tried to say was, since we've all been in low-kindness modes and high-kindness modes, that implies that we can actually work with our existing level of kindness and kind of, you know, move it along the track a little bit. So I think part of the problem in today's world, especially in kind of the Internet culture and the TV, is that that person-to-person connection isn't required. You don't necessarily see the posture and the eyes and the small gestures of conciliation and so on. And somehow that gives us an excuse to treat the other person as less real than we might otherwise do.

REHM

11:16:05
And on the other hand, in a person-to-person, stranger-to-stranger encounter, you might find yourself being more kind to that stranger than someone you love and who is dear to you?

SAUNDERS

11:16:24
Sure. I mean, I think some -- it's seems to me, some kindness is good manners. You know, if you -- yesterday I was on the plane and the man did that thing where he sort of colonized with the armrest, you know?

REHM

11:16:33
Yeah.

SAUNDERS

11:16:34
And that's a really wonderful kind of micro-example of how hard it is, you know?

REHM

11:16:37
Yeah.

SAUNDERS

11:16:39
Yeah, I don't know, it's...

REHM

11:16:40
So, what did you do?

SAUNDERS

11:16:41
Well, I did this neurotic 40-minute dance. I, first, I thought, oh, I wrote the book on kindness. I'll just let him have it. And then that little voice sneaks up and says, What are you, a sucker? Is that kindness? Is kindness just rolling over? So then I moved my arm against his and that kind of...

REHM

11:16:54
A little bit.

SAUNDERS

11:16:54
...yeah. And of course he didn't notice. And then I went back to my original position and this whole dance. And then finally what happened was he fell asleep. And I could see suddenly, he's in a beautiful suit, and I could see, that guy's tired. You know, he's really tired. So that allowed me to actually be genuinely sort of nice to him and say, Aw, he's -- he's asleep. We've all been there. Just forget it. But it was -- and then the plane landed. So it was kind of a -- it took up the whole flight. Yeah.

REHM

11:17:16
Interesting that -- of course you don't want to get in to a conversation about this armrest is for both of us.

SAUNDERS

11:17:26
Right, right.

REHM

11:17:27
So probably better to let it go.

SAUNDERS

11:17:30
Yeah, yeah. But I think what's, to me was, in the speech, one thing I did, I really tiptoed around the question of how to be more kind, because that's alluded me. Also, what is kindness? Because that's a deep well.

REHM

11:17:39
Exactly.

SAUNDERS

11:17:41
Really what I was trying to just say, you know, according to your understanding of kindness, trust me kids, you could do worse than try to make it -- get better at it, however you define it. But I, in the ensuing months, so interesting to -- kindness is kind of a trapdoor. If you say, all right, I'm going to be kind today, I've found that you get into so many other interesting questions about presence of mind, consideration, you know, so encourage all those things to open up.

REHM

11:18:05
And we're certainly going to get into those as well as your thoughts on kindness. I hope you'll join us by phone, by email, send us a tweet -- a nice one, I hope -- about George Saunders' new book. It's titled, "Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness." Stay with us.

REHM

11:20:02
And welcome back. Prize-winning author George Saunders is with me. His new book is -- what can I tell you? I can hold it in the palm of my hand. It has what looks like handwriting on the front. It's titled "Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness." And one thing that we haven't talked about is your definition of kindness, what's so important about kindness and how it's different from plain old niceness, George.

SAUNDERS

11:20:50
Right, right. I think for me the shortcut definition would be, it's the desire to be helpful to people around you. And that wouldn't necessarily mean always being a sweetie pie, you know. You know, kind of that sort of new age cliché of somebody who's very open and loving. And somebody drives a spike through his head and he says, oh thank you for the opportunity. I'll, you know, hang my sweater on it.

SAUNDERS

11:21:10
That's not, you know, I suppose in a sophisticated idea of kindness that's not it. So that's where it gets tricky, you know. I'm a person who -- I like to be nice. It's kind of dispositional but sometimes it's passivity or, you know, I don't really want to get in a conflict. So is that helpful to people? Probably not. If you're being abused, to just take it and smile, that's certainly not helpful. So this is what I mean by kindness being sort of a gateway virtue. If you got up in the morning and said I resolve to be helpful to people, you'd be opening a can of worms actually.

SAUNDERS

11:21:41
You know, there's so many questions that arise from that of discernment. How do you know what would help somebody? So it's a pretty deep well. That's why it had to be a very short speech because I...

REHM

11:21:52
Here's an email from Dale who says, "Aldous Huxley, near the end of his life wrote, "it is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human life -- with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than try to be a little kinder."

SAUNDERS

11:22:22
It's beautiful.

REHM

11:22:24
Isn't that beautiful?

SAUNDERS

11:22:24
Yeah, yeah.

REHM

11:22:25
And then Filo (sp?) of Alexandria says, "Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." And there you are with the man on the plane.

SAUNDERS

11:22:39
Right, right.

REHM

11:22:40
Why do you think it is so hard to learn to be nice and kind consistently?

SAUNDERS

11:22:50
I think it's partly the way we're born. You know, we're born with this sense that we're separate from everything else, that we're central to the whole -- you know, the world's a show that got put on for us, you know. And I think we also are born with the sort of notion that we're going to be here forever, you know.

SAUNDERS

11:23:06
So in a certain way, you know, if you could imagine a world where actually you were the only living being in it and all this -- sort of the Truman Show -- everybody around you is just simulacrum and you were going to live forever, and you really were there for God's enjoyment to see how you did. In that case that would be the world where selfishness would be perfectly justified. You really are the only living being.

SAUNDERS

11:23:27
But since we know intellectually that that's not the case, selfishness is counter indicated. But I think some -- maybe for some Darwinian reason, you know, we're born thinking that we're central and separate and permanent. And I feel like I've lived my whole life kind of trying to disrobe of those three notions. And sometimes if I'm in a good mood and things are going well, I can feel that I've made some progress. But then, like on the plane, you see how really, really hardwired it is.

REHM

11:23:53
Easy, yeah.

SAUNDERS

11:23:55
It's really an intractable problem.

REHM

11:23:56
Doesn't it also have to do with your parents and how kind or unkind they may have been with you?

SAUNDERS

11:24:07
Absolutely. I think that role modeling is so important, and especially if you've had an opportunity to be influenced by someone who was strong and kind together. I think actually those are almost the same concepts. You know, we sometimes think strength and kindness is an add on but if you'd had the good fortune of being with someone who was both powerful and kind, then I think that gets into -- and you see it as one in the same. It's not, you know, no difference.

SAUNDERS

11:24:35
And on the other hand, if you've been treated harshly, I think that makes a wound. And then, you know, we emulate what we see. And if we see harshness we think that's the adult way to deal with the world.

REHM

11:24:46
What do you think is -- what is it that makes you feel so good about being kind?

SAUNDERS

11:24:59
Well, I think all of us has had the experience of blundering into it, you know. So in my case it's -- I think for all of us, you know, we have a brief trip into the land of that good state of mind when we fall in love. And the border between you and somebody else falls down.

REHM

11:25:11
Oh, yes.

SAUNDERS

11:25:13
But conversely, when someone we love passes away, you get a -- it's almost like the veil gets lifted and you see, aw, this is -- you know, this is what life is. We love and they leave. They die and I'm going to die. That veil gets lifted for a second and I think then what happens is you're actually seeing the truth of the situation. Then a few days later the veil drops down and you say, oh thank goodness, I'm not going to die and I am the most important person. And, you know, my small victories and defeats are really the most important thing.

SAUNDERS

11:25:40
But I think any of us and all of us have had that veil lifted. That's a pretty nice education, a moment to say, maybe that's how we're meant to be. You know, it often occurred to me, again from those tiny little moments of clarity, that wouldn't it be an incredibly powerful state if you loved other people so much, you know, if your main emotion is sympathy -- spontaneous sympathy for other people. You would be so fearless, you know. You'd be so powerful. A situation would never confuse you.

SAUNDERS

11:26:08
You know, if you could really understand that it would be a great -- well, now unfortunately for me it happens in 20-second intervals when I've had really good luck and a great meal and it's not raining, you know. But at least, you know, sort of like if you were shooting free-throws and hitting one out of every four. What a stupid game. And then Michael Jordan walked off. Then suddenly you have to say, well, it's not the game's problem here, you know.

SAUNDERS

11:26:30
So that's where I think both having these little moments of kindness and also meeting people in your life who, for whatever reason, have -- are really good at this, that's very inspiring. And it means that you're not trapped. You know, we're not trapped at our current level of grumpiness. We can...

REHM

11:26:44
Do you think that day that you delivered your convocation speech that you changed anyone who was sitting there?

SAUNDERS

11:26:58
I don't know. I mean, I don't remember my graduation speech.

REHM

11:27:00
You cannot know?

SAUNDERS

11:27:01
I hope so. I hope so. And I think that's the way you teach, is you say, well, there are some number of you out there who have this idea already. I approve that message. But I should say, you know, the day I gave that speech it was in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse and it was hot. And just before I was going to go up a young woman fainted. She just fell right off her seat. And instantly everybody mobilized. All these people around her didn't know her, leapt over chairs. And I thought, oh maybe I don't have to give this speech. I can just, you know -- so I think it's there. I don't think it's anything -- it's not news to anybody that kindness is the glue.

REHM

11:27:35
And yet right here in Washington we have a situation where a gentleman clearly suffering had members of the fire department refuse to come and cross the street to help him. A lack of kindness or an incredibly inflated sense of bureaucracy and well, it's not my job or that's not something we do or it all becomes conflated.

SAUNDERS

11:28:14
Yeah, yeah, I think, you know, one of the -- I -- to have a book like this and promote it, I feel a little vulnerable because it's so easy to be -- to advocate facile kindness, you know. If you're in a good mood, you always open the door for somebody, you pick up the keys.

REHM

11:28:27
Right.

SAUNDERS

11:28:27
That's -- but I think real life constantly is reminding us that this is not a surface issue. It really goes down to the core of who we are. And life will always throw so many situations that we can't manage, even a trivial one like on an airplane. God save us if we're in a civil war or we're overcome with fear. So I -- for myself I just want to always remember that kindness is the doorway into very, very deep important territory. And it shouldn't be, you know, sort of taken too lightly. It's a serious matter.

REHM

11:29:00
What did your parents teach you about kindness?

SAUNDERS

11:29:04
They taught me that humor is a really effective tool with kindness. And the other thing they did for me was they were always accepting of -- and I was a kind of strange artistic naughty kid, you know, kind of swung wildly in all directions. And they never made me feel odd or unloved. They made me feel like they were just for me. And I dedicated this book to my grandparents, same all four, kind of like you could bring to them what you actually were and they would be all right with it.

SAUNDERS

11:29:32
And that's a huge thing because I think at that age you're looking to your parents to see what the universe is like basically. And if they say, we like you, you know, try it. You know, even if you fail you're all right with us. Even if you make a fool of yourself it's okay. Then in a certain way there's an echo of the universe saying that to you. And then you go out a little emboldened. So I was really, really lucky in that way.

REHM

11:29:55
We've got lots of callers so let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to David in Argus, Ind. Hi, you're on the air.

DAVID

11:30:10
Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

REHM

11:30:12
Surely.

DAVID

11:30:12
First, I just want to thank the author for being a kind person. We need more people like that in the world.

REHM

11:30:18
I agree.

DAVID

11:30:18
And I do disagree that his opinion that kindness seems to be on the rise. I just see meanness so often, whether it's in the workplace or at schools, or he mentioned the media, Washington. And I often wonder what the value of those -- that impulse is, and we all feel the impulse to ridicule. You know, I try to overcome it myself. I try to be a nice person but I feel the same impulse to ridicule if I don't agree with somebody's being. And I just often wonder about the evolutionary value of that impulse, and if you wonder as well. I mean...

SAUNDERS

11:30:54
Yeah, I have wondered and I'm, you know, not at all an expert but I often think though I have this idea that, you know, back in the Neanderthal days, there were two cavemen in a cave. And this is how I think. But a stranger approaches across the vast prairie. And one of them says, we better kill him. You know, he's trouble. You can tell by the way he's walking. And the other one says, oh I bet he has a really interesting new idea. I'd love to -- now the -- now we're inclined to think the second one is right but actually they both have a place, in other words, in terms -- we really don't know who that guy is.

SAUNDERS

11:31:25
So the human tenancy to, you know, want to push somebody away and pull them in, those are two probably evolutionary things that we've developed to protect ourselves in the long run maybe. That would be my guess, you know. And I don’t' think -- also for myself, you know, the time that I've ridiculed or been too sarcastic, it all has to do with the tape loop in my head of inadequacy. You know, the feeling that I'm out of sorts. I'm in the wrong place. These people don't like me. I'm not smart enough. And then you fire off a zinger, almost like, you know, an arrow to drive back across. From my experience it's almost always because I feel, you know, not enough.

REHM

11:32:01
Inadequate.

SAUNDERS

11:32:02
Yeah, yeah, I think so.

REHM

11:32:04
And in order to take charge...

SAUNDERS

11:32:07
Right.

REHM

11:32:07
...rather than non-responding.

SAUNDERS

11:32:12
Yeah, there's a discomfort that comes from that. And sometimes action feels like you're pushing back the discomfort maybe, I don't know. But it's true, and I think some of these things, as we mentioned earlier, are institutional now. I mean, if you have, you know, news stations that have to fill up three hours talking about something that you could get over within six minutes, you're basically -- that's called gossip. And so gossip tends -- trends in the direction of snarkiness, you know.

SAUNDERS

11:32:36
And you don't talk for three hours saying...

SAUNDERS

11:32:38
Absolutely.

SAUNDERS

11:32:38
...it could be otherwise. You take a position and you occupy it energetically. I think even in our politics, you know, the -- this left right divide has been so fanned by -- I would say by money -- you know, it's a very big business to be angry and on one side or the other. And in a certain way that's exaggerated what is probably a somewhat real divide but negotiable, but because it's so profitable and so much easier to throw six hours of vitriol, we get this wedge effect, you know, which is circular because you hear that on TV often enough, you start to self identify as one or the other and absorb the arguments.

REHM

11:33:14
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a call from Lebanon, Penn. Hi, Jim.

JIM

11:33:25
Hi, Diane. Glad to be on.

REHM

11:33:26
Thanks.

JIM

11:33:28
I was -- I heard your guest say that he doesn't really watch TV all that much or have cable. I was wondering what you think the effective shows like Dallas and reality game shows like Survivor where the whole plot is to stab each other in the back to win. It's like our society has built up the idea that kindness is weakness and anybody that shows kindness is the one you have to kill.

SAUNDERS

11:33:51
I think that's right. You know, I heard -- I had an interview with Melvin McLeod who is the editor of the Shambhala Sun. And he said a really interesting thing was that in his experience in about the '80s, in that era that you're talking about, certain virtues like gentleness, compassion, kindness, patience, tolerance kind of at a downgrade to what he calls, you know, soft virtues.

SAUNDERS

11:34:09
So the real ones were winning, fighting, aggression, confidence, you know. And you could be kind after you'd won, that kind of idea. And he thought that was a real disruption in our attempt to make a national character because anyone who thinks they can live only on strength or winning is going to be surprised at some point. You can't do it. So for a true character, whether it's a country or person, you have to have strength and some acknowledgement that we all fall from time to time.

REHM

11:34:40
And of course you have movies like "The Hunger Games," you have people killing each other out of shear competition.

SAUNDERS

11:34:51
Yeah, although now it's funny because when this book came out -- or when the speech came out and I went on the road, I got a lot of people saying, your speech was so positive. And then I read your stories. And my stories are quite violent and quite cruel.

SAUNDERS

11:35:05
And so I think one of the things we have to sort of tiptoe around is the idea that it's not necessarily the case that representations of conflict or violence aren't kind. It has to do with -- that would be nice if that were the case. It'd be easier. But in fact, you know, in Shakespeare we see because these things happen in life they should happen in art. But then you get the really tricky part of what's your relation to the violence that you put in your work? And that is called artistry and responsibility.

SAUNDERS

11:35:32
And it's not easy. You know, it's kind of a tricky thing to know when are we being gratuitous, when are we being honest. You know, it's a pretty deep well when you think about kindness and art.

REHM

11:35:43
All right. And a call from Kathleen in St. Louis, Mo. Hi, you're on the air.

KATHLEEN

11:35:52
Oh, Diane, you and your staff have the best ideas for shows. I just had to say that. But, you know, at the end of the day it comes down to choice. And it just -- it seems to me it's so much easier to be nice to people. That's one of my phrases. How hard is it to be nice, for heaven's sakes? And I just -- I don't know, back to the Golden Rule, treat other people the way you want to be treated. And it just feels so much better to be nice. And a smile, just a smile.

KATHLEEN

11:36:20
You know what they say in Europe? They don't like -- the way we greet each other as we walk down the street like with just a courtesy glance or a nod. But they don't do that in Europe. And I'm sorry for them because it's just -- it doesn't take much. And it's...

SAUNDERS

11:36:35
Yeah well, I -- you know, I think there's something to what you're saying, although I also think there's the question of disposition or if we look at it in terms of good fortune. In other words, some people I think are born pretty happy and pretty well adjusted and pretty -- or -- and their families are high functioning. And then you get somebody who by disposition or environment, it just isn't.

SAUNDERS

11:36:59
And I think we have to be careful -- I would say that you have to be careful to say it's all choice because just like anything else, there's the preparation for the moment at hand. And some people are -- you know, they've got challenges, you know. So it's a very -- it's a moving kind of thing.

REHM

11:37:20
George Saunders. His new book "Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness." Short break here and when we come back, more of your thoughts. I look forward to hearing from you.

REHM

11:40:01
And for those of you just joining us, we're talking about kindness, personal kindness, kindness throughout the political world, kindness in the media. George Saunders is my guest. He is, as one of our emailers puts it, a brilliant fiction writer, but we're talking about his brand new book, containing the convocation he delivered at Syracuse University on kindness.

REHM

11:40:36
It appeared on the New York Times' website and then went viral. And it's now in a lovely new book, titled, "Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness." And here is that email from Deborah. She says, "I think it's not a coincidence that Mr. Saunders is a brilliant fiction writer. And especially a magnificent short-story writer. And the winner of last year's PEN/Malamud short story prize.

REHM

11:41:15
"The ability to see the world from others' point of view, to imagine what others would feel, given external circumstances, is at the heart of both writing convincing and moving fiction, and of treating others with kindness."

SAUNDERS

11:41:38
Thank you, Barbara. Very beautifully put.

REHM

11:41:41
That's lovely.

SAUNDERS

11:41:41
Yeah, one of the things I've loved about being a fiction writer is that as you -- I do a lot of rewriting. And as you go through that process you start out kind of a little sarcastic and maybe sometimes mocking your -- you're certainly looking down on them. They're kind of puppets that you're controlling. And the story form doesn't like that. It will -- if you do that it will give you a boring blocked-up story.

SAUNDERS

11:42:05
So for the story to get told you have to look more closely at the character and start giving him some of your own characteristics, start looking at him with a little more intensity. And once you do that it's almost like the story says, "Okay. Now we can proceed. Now you've brought the character up to your level, you're not condescending. Now we can get on with it."

SAUNDERS

11:42:22
So in a certain way, over the many years of doing it, it kind of -- it trains you in a kind of a hands-on version of that "Philadelphia Story" quote, you know, "The time to make up your mind about a person is never." And the story says, "Keep trying, you know.

REHM

11:42:35
Here's another email from Russ, who says, "I absolutely love your books. I'm reading them at an alarming rate. It's clear you have an ear for how kindness and its opposite plays out on the scale of the family. A culture, a nation, but most certainly you also have an ear for cruelty.

REHM

11:43:03
Kindness that has been replaced by commerce. Kindness that has been perverted by a culture that's lost track of morality." Can you elaborate on your thoughts about cruelty or the lack of kindness and its uneasy relationship with the opposite?"

SAUNDERS

11:43:27
Wow, that's a great question. I have a perfect answer about 4:00 this morning. That's such a -- I think one of the things that fiction teaches you is you have to try to abandon the easy position on everything. You know, ideally, if you had four characters you'd see all four of them as being totally valid. You're not judging, you're just letting them express themselves fully. So -- and also when you're the writer, you have to let all of your own stuff to the table. Even if you don't like it much.

SAUNDERS

11:43:53
So the cruelty, that's kind of something I can do. I don't know why. I don't really like it. But as Flannery O'Connor said, "You can choose what you write, but you can't choose what you make live." So it's kind of a scary, wonderful experiment in saying, "Okay, self, come out. I don't care how you come out. I endorse you and I'll work with you." So, you know, in a sense, if you're writing about kindness, as the listener says, you're absolutely writing about cruelty.

SAUNDERS

11:44:18
Those are actually two sides of the same coin. And I find that if I start a story, say about kindness, you know, if I had that intention and I make a bunch of nice wonderful people, I have a beautiful restaurant, and all their kids have just gotten into Ivy League schools and the food is great and their credit cards don't bounce, nothing happens. And it's not about kindness. That's -- almost anybody could be kind in that situation.

SAUNDERS

11:44:40
But you put in an earthquake, you know, and suddenly you seek kindness or love or whatever you're talking about tested at the margins. And this idea that untested virtue is not a virtue. So if you want to know about the human capacity for love, take us out on the hinterlands where love is hard to come by.

REHM

11:45:00
Where do you think racism fits into that equation?

SAUNDERS

11:45:06
I think it's part of the process of hardening one's self around this temporary identity that we happen to have, this skin color, this cultural thing. And then feelings of extreme inadequacy, looking for somebody to look down on. If it's a person of a different color, if it's a person of a different country. It's -- I think it's that insecurity.

SAUNDERS

11:45:27
And, you know, when you use the word ignorance, you can use it in an almost non-pejorative way, like, this person just doesn't know what's surreal. And I think that's where it fits. And it's in the same class as all the other isms, which have to do with human failings of -- failing to understand that the other person sitting there is just as real as you are, I think.

REHM

11:45:51
All right. Let's go to Robert, in Kissimmee, Fla. You're on the air.

ROBERT

11:46:01
Hello, Diane. Is my voice clear?

REHM

11:46:04
Yes, it certainly is. Go right ahead.

ROBERT

11:46:07
Okay. I will say for my experience -- I'm 68 years old. I will become 69 next month. That I was raised to be kind. Okay. I went to Catholic school. And everything in the culture of my community, especially at Christmas time, was about kindness and niceness. You know, Santa Claus has a list…

REHM

11:46:44
Sure.

ROBERT

11:46:44
…and he's checking it twice, want to find out who's naughty and nice.

REHM

11:46:48
Right, right.

ROBERT

11:46:49
So I was always exhorted as a child that niceness was a virtue, that kindness was a virtue. And that we should always -- I was always praying and it was enforced to say excuse me, pardon me, good morning, ma'am, good morning, sir, you know, and things like that. So I think the culture has changed because the world is not kind.

REHM

11:47:20
What do you think?

SAUNDERS

11:47:21
Well, I, you know, I think in these things it's sort of hard to generalize. You know, you can step out the door and there'll be an incredibly moving example of somebody being generous. And right next door someone failing in that. So I think certainly, you know, the -- I was Catholic also. And I got a lot of wonderful experiences there. This is Chicago in the '70s. So Dorothy Day was very much in the air and this idea that Christ was a model of someone who was sympathetic to everybody.

SAUNDERS

11:47:51
You could put -- Jesus could go anywhere and would be able to accommodate and sort of transform the situation. So I think -- one of the things I hint at in this speech, and I didn't want to get to heavy with it, but, you know, if we believe that kindness is mutable, we can change it, then I said to the kids, you know, you might want to go out and find out what changes it for you. If you can observe your own mind and you can see in this state I'm less kind and in this state, more. What is it that put you there?

SAUNDERS

11:48:15
And I kind of said, you know, the spiritual traditions, in their most valid manifestations, have always been about this basically. I mean, if you look at any great religion and you look at the central core, it's about this idea that we -- that we can become more loving and here's how you might go about it.

REHM

11:48:31
Having written this convocation speech and now this book, has it changed you?

SAUNDERS

11:48:40
Well, it does because suddenly you're, you know, you're sort of the kindness guy. And so you can't -- you have to stop doing the armed robberies and everything. But it does sort of -- it certainly made me think. Even in preparation to talk about the book, you start thinking, well, what do I mean -- what do I mean by kindness?

REHM

11:48:53
Yeah, you bet.

SAUNDERS

11:48:53
And in what way am I not good at it? That was a big one for me because I don't think I'm a particularly mean person. By disposition I'm pretty easy going. And yet, this urgent -- I have an urgent feeling of wanting to figure this out before I die. You know, I'm trying to be -- go up in this pursuit. And it's not really about, you know, being grouchy. It's about something deeper. For me it's about presence. You know, to what extent can I kind of quiet down this, you know, talking, you know, sort of mental monkey mind that we all have.

SAUNDERS

11:49:26
And truly believe that the person over there is important. It sounds so simple, but that feels to me really urgent. More urgent then about anything else in my life. And I'm -- and in the speech I was kind of saying, you know, why -- you guys are young, trust me. This is really the most important thing to do. I'm 55 and I'm just figuring out this deal. You know, so don't waste your time like I did, kids.

REHM

11:49:49
All right. To Rhonda, in Murphy, Texas. Hi there.

RHONDA

11:49:55
Yes. Good morning. Thank you for this conversation. One of the things that concerns me, and particularly as a parent, is the amount of unkindness that adults seem to share among themselves. We don't want our children to be bullied. We want everyone to be kind to our children. But it seems like we're living in an age within these last number of years where adults have taken to being very unkind, mainly to people that they don't even know.

RHONDA

11:50:23
Whether it's the president or other political or religious or community leaders. It's almost as adults we think we have a free pass to say anything we want, whether that's in person or oh, my God, don't mention the internet. It is just full of hate and vitriol about anything. If you say the sky is blue, someone's going to take that and try to convince you that it's someone else's fault, that it's really not blue, it's green.

RHONDA

11:50:52
And I just think that, for me at least, I try to live consciously with the result --of the results of whatever I will say or I will do, going back to that golden rule of treating people the way you want to be treated. And I'm a writer and I just -- there are some things that I can't even repost because of the comments that have already been on a particular article that are so annoying and so unkind. And people would have a fit if you said that to them to their face.

SAUNDERS

11:51:22
Yeah.

RHONDA

11:51:23
And I just think as adults we need to just live consciously. Live more consciously as to how we conduct ourselves because our children are watching us. And…

SAUNDERS

11:51:31
I agree. That phrase that you live consciously is so beautiful, you know. I noticed something. And this is a strange thought, but the other day I was watching TV and there was a lot of vitriol. And I thought, you know what? I'm in an airport. I can walk away from it. And it's funny how on a -- most of this stuff I think happens on a personal level, as you're saying. So I found it kind of -- maybe it's a cop-out, but to me it's really helpful to just walk away from that.

SAUNDERS

11:51:56
You know, if I put a story out, I don't read the comments section. It poisons you a little bit. And I don't think it helps anybody, you know. So I agree with you. I think to live consciously and to recognize that the fruits of your actions are contained in everything that you do. And, also, you know, I've had a couple of funny experiences. I got a really nasty email once after a TV appearance. Really at the obscene, kind of almost stalkerish, you know.

SAUNDERS

11:52:21
And I -- and it was -- I was -- I'm from Chicago and I'm easily offended. I'm kind of a, you know, a Southside guy. So I emailed the guy back. And I said, just as the listener suggested, I said, "Look, I'm a person. I just read this email at 8:00 o'clock. And you ruined my day. I don't think you would say that to me in person. Because I bet you're a fairly nice guy, you know. And about four days later I got a very sheepish response. "I'm sorry, you're right. I wrote that because I didn't think you'd ever read it."

REHM

11:52:46
Wow.

SAUNDERS

11:52:48
Yeah. And I said, okay. Well, let's talk, you know. You don't like this thing I said. I'll send you the book -- or no, buy the book and we'll talk about it. He said, "I'm on assistance. I can't, you know." So they opened up into a human discussion instead of somebody throwing a rock at somebody else, you know.

REHM

11:53:02
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Ryan, in Houston, Texas. Hi there, you're on the air.

RYAN

11:53:16
Hi Diane, thanks for taking my call.

REHM

11:53:16
Sure.

RYAN

11:53:17
I really appreciate it. I just got a comment that kind of gives insight to this whole where unkindness comes from and how it spreads. You know, the old adage misery loves company, right? Well, I kind of take this -- I've seen a microcosm of how unkindness spreads in a video game called "Grand Theft Auto 5." It was really recently released. When they came out with an online version, which allows people to cooperate with each other from consoles across the country, everything started out really well. Everyone was kind to each other.

RYAN

11:53:47
There wasn't a lot of indiscriminate shooting going on, which can happen in video games. Everybody was completing missions together and doing races. And then all of -- and then suddenly, all these other people came in and started just breaking the rules and just shooting indiscriminately and just doing whatever they want and sabotaging all these missions. And suddenly the character of the online community started to change into a more unkind thing.

RYAN

11:54:10
People didn't go around together. If someone showed up on your map, you avoided them because there was almost a guarantee they were going to try to take you down. So these people who come in and be unkind create this air of mistrust because of the fact that you can't tell whether or not this person is going to be good or bad to you.

SAUNDERS

11:54:30
That's so interesting. You know, I think we have to have a little bit of faith in the sense that these complex human networks that we have do actually respond to kindness, and as you're saying to unkindness. And, you know, to me it's a difficult situation. And -- but what I did notice from the reaction to the speech was sometimes it's really helpful to say the obvious thing that we all believe. You know, to get up and say -- and believe me, as somebody who's kind of -- I like to think of myself as an edgy fiction writer.

SAUNDERS

11:54:57
It wasn't so easy to get up and say, hey, kids, you know, I regret kindness. It seems a little obvious and easy, but I think sometimes it's helpful to just hear the simple truth stated simply, you know. And then the part of us that already knew it 80 percent, now knows it 85 percent.

REHM

11:55:15
Do you know the other point that the caller brings up is both unkindness and kindness are contagious.

SAUNDERS

11:55:26
Yes.

REHM

11:55:28
And if one injects kindness into a situation, you get that back.

SAUNDERS

11:55:36
Yes.

REHM

11:55:36
Maybe not all the time, but if you persist, whereas if you bring unkindness into it, you're sure to get…

SAUNDERS

11:55:47
That's right.

REHM

11:55:47
…lots of unkindness back.

SAUNDERS

11:55:49
Yeah, no, I think it's a good -- I think you're absolutely right. And it's a good argument for sort of reminding ourselves that kindness is an actual tangible human value. It isn't an add-on. It's not a hallmark thing. It's actually a very complicated and sophisticated way of dealing with the world. And anyone who is an intellectual or a writer or a poet or a musician or a public figure needs to reckon with it. As in the Huxley quote that you -- it's not something that we can dismiss, you know, or trivialize. Big deal.

REHM

11:56:22
Let's read that Huxley quote again. "It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with a human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than try to be a little kinder." Seems to me that's a great bit of advice to end with.

SAUNDERS

11:56:55
I think so, too.

REHM

11:56:56
Thank you so much, George Saunders.

SAUNDERS

11:56:58
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

11:56:59
It's good to see you, again. His book, "Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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