Having just read George Saunders commencement address at Syracuse University, I’ve got some serious thinking to do.
In the speech (which can and should be found on the internet by you, dear readers), Saunders lists many things that he should regret—including swimming naked in a river filled with toxic monkey, and the resulting illness. He says he doesn’t regret poverty or terrible jobs. His one regret, he says, are failures of kindness.
Saunders mentions a girl he knew in elementary school, a girl who was constantly picked on and ostracized. The author didn’t pick on this child himself, but he regrets, even decades later, that he didn’t do anything to stop it, either. He regrets:
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
This speech perfectly coincided with a recent conversation I had with a friend where we talked about Facebook—specifically, how the social networking site gives us constant reminders of past cruelties. There was a time when you could easily forget how you made fun of that poor girl in your 2nd grade class, the one who always had lice and dirty clothing and was as shy as a caged kitten. There was a time when all she was to you in your adult life was a brief memory, one that made you cringe at your own immaturity and lack of awareness.
That time is now officially over.
In this new era, that girl is your Facebook friend and she has children and a vivid life and is posting really interesting articles about food. She has, in spite of you, become what appears to be a very happy person. And each time you check your feed you’re reminded of what an ass you’ve been and how very ashamed you are of yourself. She is no ghost, but a real presence in your world.
Saunders focuses on a different kind of cruelty, though. Not outright, not don’t touch me, you have cooties cruelty, but the kind where you were a bystander and witnessed suffering. Where your eyes down, you mouth shut, and your heart safely walled off. I’d say that I’ve had, oh, a million or so moments like this over the course of my life, especially during my adolescent and teenage years.
As an outcast myself, and one who was often picked on, I was hell-bent on not attracting any attention. I witnessed racism, sexism, homophobia, every kind of bullying imaginable. I witnessed.
At the time I felt that by not participating, I could remain free of responsibility. That silence was some kind of kindness on my part. With time and maturity, though, these are the moments that haunt me. I forget where I put my keys and my grocery list all the time. But I remember that day on the school bus when I said nothing at all.
Social media has made it so that I don’t have to dive deeply into my rather foggy memory to dig these uncomfortable moments up. Those same people have appeared in my life again, and I’m given a daily montage of my mistakes.
There is the person I dumped via text message.
There is the person I didn’t stick up for at that slumber party.
There’s the black boy who I denied having a crush on, telling my friends that I would never like him. The truth was, I had drawn a Sharpie heart around his yearbook picture. I kept this fact, and my crush, a very close secret for my entire 7th grade year. I was even mean to him as a result, this kid who was only trying to be nice to the weird girl who had a crush on him.
I am, certainly, guilty of countless failures of kindness and worse. Facebook makes sure that I remember them.
There are so many drawbacks to this global village we’ve created, but the upside is that it gives us an opportunity to examine past mistakes in the flesh. Being part of such a transient culture, one in which many of us will move every few years or so, makes it far easier to bury the past. Those people we wronged or disappointed are merely characters from our past—bit players in our story. To see these people again, to see them raise children and work hard and lose their parents, makes that impossible. It makes our past mistakes arise fresh and bloody and in need of healing.
This isn’t to say that I’m going to apologize to every person I’ve ever wronged. I tried that once, sending a heartfelt message to a girl I’d made fun of in junior high. She responded by saying that she didn’t remember the incident, that she barely remembered me at all. She didn’t need my apology, she said, and was a little annoyed that I’d remembered her being an object of ridicule. She remembered her school years as fairly happy ones. My reminder was not appreciated.
I received one of these apologies in my own inbox once. He was one of my most aggressive tormenters, a teenager I feared, loathed and would pummel to an imaginary pulp during my Tae Bo video workouts. Now he is a man and sorry. I wasn’t ready to forgive him and resented being asked to. There was some kind of solace in hating him, that teenage version of him, for the rest of my life.
Social networking makes harboring resentment a little bit more difficult.
Sometimes sorry isn’t a solution. There is, unfortunately, no rewind button for this film. No Oscars, either. There are no awards for being a good person retroactively, for admitting our crimes long after the fact. We can, however, reap the benefits of those mistakes by being reminded of them. We can choose to respond to the past by making kindness an elemental part of the present. Those moments from long ago that make us cringe, well, we can reduce or even obliterate those from here on out.
Every vile thing we do won’t necessarily be posted for all to see, but you should think about that the next time you decide to not hold the door for the elderly lady with a walker because you’re in a hurry. Or when you decide to not return the calls from that man you went out on a date with, the one who thought you had a good date. What if these people turned up in your live feed? What if they exposed your failures of kindness to the world? To your boss and your mother?
No, return the call, hold the door, respond in the present like you wish you’d responded all those years ago. Use kindness as a ghostbuster to keep you free of all that psychological haunting.
Social media is really just a metaphor for the truth of life: we are all interconnected regardless of time and space. This used to just be a theoretical idea, but now our past comes up to greet us. Some actions are forgotten, yes. But some are written in e-permanent form for anyone to Google.
As technology gets smarter, so should we. We should take every chance to engage and grow more compassionate, to live life without regrets.
I’m starting today. Namaste.
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Ed: Sara Crolick