In a commencement speech this year, novelist George Saunders gave Syracuse University graduates advice based on his biggest regrets. He doesn’t regret missed opportunities, terrible jobs, moments of humiliation most. He most regrets failures of kindness.
Before I read the speech, I had recently mentioned to my parents that I still cringe when I remember the sore spot of my first college roommate.
I used to think she so affected me because deep fears of not belonging, of being left out and ignored came true. While painful, I realized the real reason I’m still haunted by it years (and many rewarding friendships) later: she wasn’t kind to me, but I wasn’t kind to her, either.
I acted defensively, treating her as badly as she treated me. My response may have been justifiable and human, but it was far from the standard I claimed to live by. Neighbor, enemy, or both, God says love her.
I don’t beat myself up about it or even think about it very often, but I do have a recurring dream that goes like this: I run into her unexpectedly and instead of turning around and pretending it didn’t happen, which is honestly what I would probably do, I walk right up to her and apologize.
Regret may be the most unsettling of human emotions, and I try not to dwell there long. However, paying attention to regrets can help us avoid the same patterns in the present and future.
Saunders’ speech resonated with so many because we can all probably tell a story like mine. Failures of kindness are a universal regret.
Kindness is so basic that we teach children to be kind before they’re school aged, but so profound that it sometimes eludes us after decades of trying.
Why is it so hard to treat others how you’d want to be treated, to love your neighbor as yourself?
Kindness requires us to become others focused instead of self focused, and that’s hard. Maturity, security and self respect come first.
Our baser instincts tell us that there is limited room to belong, that leaving someone out ensures our own belonging. And for humans, belonging is survival.
Fear drives us to be exclusive, belittling, jealous, spiteful, cowardly. From playgrounds to dorm rooms to board rooms, kindness prevails when love motivates us more than fear.
Question: Can you recall any of your own “failures of kindness” or a kindness extended your way that’s stuck with you?