In George Saunders convocation address at Syracuse University, he said:
“How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, et cetera, et cetera?
There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. It’s an exciting idea: Since we have observed that kindness is variable, we might also sensibly conclude that it is improvable; that is, there must be approaches and practices that can actually increase our ambient level of kindness.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: 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, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away. Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet Hayden Carruth said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was mostly Love, now.
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: As 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.”
If you’d like to read the entirety of Saunders speech, you can get a ‘transcript’ of it (basically) in his book, Congratulations, by the way… though this is one George Saunders book I suggest passing on.
I wouldn’t be writing this blog post if I didn’t have something to say about it. Saunders has a gift for compassion, but I think, the more I hear him, the more I believe it’s his strength to a fault… and that it does have some blind spots. At some point, I intend to talk about Carl Panzram, his struggles, how he’s sympathetic, but how he’s ultimately still a monster who was treated right when he was hung. But I’ll get into that another time.
Every time I’ve heard Saunders speak, he’s been very concerned with what he considers compassion and kindness, not just considered, but even from reading the passage above, he seems so devoted to it that he’s willing to sacrifice himself on its alter as long as he’s hailed as “kind” at the end of his life. But self-deprecation and self-sacrifice do not automatically equal kindness nor is it always the most helpful thing in a situation.
I know–You might be asking what kind of jerk I must be to argue against kindness. It is a strange thing, isn’t it? But since when is indulging someone always the best for them?
If a child wishes to eat an unending jar of candy, is it kind to indulge in that child’s wishes or to make the child momentarily unhappy by telling her no? What if you met someone who was cheating on his spouse. Would it be kind of you to be considerate of his wishes? What do you do when your kindness helps one person, but not another?
I admire Saunders greatly, but the more I listen to him speak, the more I hear his ideas and philosophies, the more I think he’s painfully naive. In his speech, he said:
some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.
Based on personal experience, this is the opposite of true. As children, most people start out hopeful, kind, and dream large. I know even just a few years ago I wondered why anyone would lie to someone else if the person they’re interacting with is behind honest? It’s this set of beliefs that leaves you open to be taken advantage of — oh, and I was. As we interact with other people, we find out that generally, people are looking out for themselves. If you put yourself an the altar of altruism, the world is far too eager to turn you into fodder to lift itself up. You’ll find the more people you interact with, the less they care about you and the less they want to be helpful to you. In fact, most kindness is derived from a feeling of pleasure one gets from feeling like they did a good thing.
We are more likely to run into people who will make us skeptical than altruistic. That’s why the stereotypical old person is distrusting.
As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish–how illogical, really.
But human behavior proves otherwise. Selflessness is illogical. Selflessness leaves you cold and hungry while selfishness can provide you with everything you have ever wanted; food, sex, housing, money, fame, power. Selfishness is an animal’s nature. It’s a human’s nature. Look at how babies act. You have to teach children to be selfless, not the other way around and most humans never escape their selfishness.
My sisters coworkers have all talked about how they want to take what they can from the government. They say, “Don’t look at me like that. You’d take whatever you can get too if you could claim extra goodies.” This isn’t about kindness. This is about getting me some for me at the expense of others. Screw others. That’s the common consensus.
Let’s look at this in a macro issue: immigration.
American progressives believe the kind thing to do is to open all borders and allow unlimited immigration because it’s “kind” to people from other countries, but what is it to the locals? Is it kind to unlock your neighbors doors and allow all the homeless in the neighborhood to use it as their home? Is it kind to displace a local population and force them to pay for foreigners? You put someone at a disadvantage for someone else’s advantage, call it kindness, and feel good about yourself. It’s nothing more than a hit of dopamine and as long as you hail kindness as the ultimate redeemer, you will always sell someone out for your next hit.
And the ‘immigrants’? Why do they choose America? It’s that same, “I’m going to get for me mine” mentality. It’s not because of America’s kindness, it’s entitlement to resources that don’t belong to them.
Then you have situations like Chappaquiddick Kennedy was responsible for the murder of that young woman, however, was it kinder for him to let her die and to lie so that his family did not have to suffer the shame of his misbehavior? Unlimited kindness is impossible because you will run out of personal resources to give and what often happens is the person who simply keeps giving will begin giving resources that belong to someone else. You burn your life for kindness and are left with nothing.
Now, I agree with Ayn Rand that not all selfishness is bad. In fact, you have to have some level of selfishness and act on your own behalf or you will become resentful, miserable, and anger. You can help others by helping yourself, but you can’t rely on other people’s kindness to help you.
Church groups that care for a new mother as long as her infant is under a certain age. Friends who speak to you only when they want something from you. Family who only invite you to events where you will bring them a gift.
What about when kindness is used as a currency to keep people under control? “I want to go to the drug store. I won’t scream and berate you if you do as I say.” One person might say. “I’ll let you see your grandchild if you behave exactly how I’d like you to.”
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, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away.
Read from a place of hopefulness, of kindness, and a place without pain. I’ve had my butt kicked again and again, but you know what? People never came to my defense. He doesn’t take this into consideration in this speech; he doesn’t take the consideration of being outcasted or alone or in a broken family or society into consideration. He makes the assumption that if you’re kicked and down, someone, somewhere will always reach down to help you and then you will become kinder for it.
What about the situations where you’re kicked down, someone sees you getting up and kicks you back down? This happens. I think it’s a nice dream Saunders has here, but people aren’t always there to help and as the people, you trust turn on you, you become embittered.
Panzram is a perfect example of this. As a child, he went to a Lutheran reform school. They spoke of God, they were supposed to be the good guys, but his teachers beat him and the other boy’s in his class for no reason; the people that called themselves the “good guys” would pull down their pants, have classmates hold the boy down, and smack their butt until it was red. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he ran away. He harbored such anger toward these “good guys” he became pretty obsessed with robbing and setting fire to every church he could. He joined the military at 16 and was mistreated by the American military, more “good guys.” In military prison, he was tortured by U.S. correctional officials, more “good guys.” After he run away from home, he spent his younger years train hopping. He helped out these men on one train who ended up raping him and leaving him for dead. What are you supposed to do when every person you expect to be kind turns out to destroy you and take from you what they can?
Hope isn’t something that can be taken from you, but with enough beatings, your fingers can become too weak to hold onto it any longer. The loss of hope and the lack of kindness in life creates monsters.
Saunders is right to believe that kindness is important, but he’s naive to think everyone can be saved when humans are fundamentally selfish and the only thing that will happen to the kind and naive is they will be raped and beaten for everything they have. You put yourself and everyone around you in danger by offering your unadulterated kindness to every stranger who passes by.
To these new graduates, Saunders said:
As you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.
To which I don’t think there is anything more dangerous than to lose track of oneself and find value only in others or the abstract idea of love.
What I thought more of as I was writing this was how so many people, including psychologists, say you can’t love others unless you love yourself, but you can’t love yourself if you don’t know yourself. In order to be kind to others, you must be kind to yourself. Unlimited self-sacrifice is not kind to yourself. Forgetting who you are is not kind to yourself. You have to have a strong sense of identity in order to take care of others in addition to yourself.
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.
It’s a nice dream, Mr. Saunders, but that’s all it is. To think everyone, day by day, just becomes kinder by interacting with people–it leaves me wanting to ask you, have you ever talked to another person?
Abuse, lying, cheating — every negative component of human nature will always exist in our world and the more someone is exposed to it, the more they may be drawn to disgusting people which make them unkind or distant.
Saunders and I are polar opposites on most issues, but we’re also polar opposites in our view of life. I can’t be certain, but I get the impression he fundamentally believes people are good while I believe people are fundamentally evil and this difference is so huge that it will drastically change how both of us approach the world and each other. He will have more trust for every individual while I will doubt intentions. His leaves him more open to human connection (if the person isn’t lying to him) while mine makes me more distant. I think his position of uncensored, unfiltered kindness and the belief in goodness leaves him more vulnerable to danger than mine.
I admire Saunders’ compassion, but just like I said during his AWP speech and like I said when I criticized his article about going to Trump rallies, his compassion borderlines on self-destructive at times. His ideology also blinds him to the truth in the same way that my skepticism can leave me distant, aloof, and outside of any community, I may wish to engage with.
I would like to ask Mr. Saunders what solution he might have to people who hear his speech on kindness and laugh. What will he say to the people who hear, “You must diminish your sense of self for others” and laugh? While you erase who you are, they take over because they know who they are and they know what they want.
If you take the plug out of a hole in a boat and put nothing back there, then the water will rush in. If you remove your strength, your individualism, your personality from yourself, then you leave yourself open to become the victim of anyone who wants to enslave you. What do you do when your belligerent benevolence is challenged by a contentious conviction for oneself?
When do you stop being kind? When is your selfless kindness a risk to your own well-being? If you are completely selfless, is a complete suicide considered kind if it benefits someone else? As silly as it might sound, is there such a thing as dangerous levels of kindness?