I recently exchanged emails with a friend suffering from incurable cancer, which prompted his suggestion that we meet for lunch. Though seriously ill, he continued to work and socialize. It seemed that he’d continue to be with us a while.
I thought lunch was a good idea and made a note to myself to phone him the following week to firm up our plans. But lunch was not to be. Within days, he took a sudden turn for the worse and was gone.
All of this has reminded me of a simple rule that even in middle age, when I should be so much wiser, I routinely forget: When life gives you the chance to share a little love with another human being, don’t put it off. Tomorrow might be too late.
That idea should have been in the front of my mind already, thanks to a small birthday present I got in January. My birthday falls at the end of the first month of the year, a time when most of us are already forgetting our New Year’s resolutions. But my birthday brings another chance each winter to think about who I am and the kind of person I should ideally be. Which is why one of my gifts, a 2014 book by George Saunders called “Congratulations, by the way,” was so fitting.
Saunders has been in the news lately because of his new novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
“Congratulations, by the way” is a slender, pocket-size volume that reprints a convocation address Saunders gave at Syracuse University — a speech that quickly went viral after it was posted online.
Saunders has had a stellar literary and teaching career, so he seemed like a speaker who could offer his audience lots of advice on how to get ahead.
But instead of sharing tips about how to reach the summit of professional glory, Saunders delivered a more basic — and more profound — message. “What I regret most in life are failures of kindness,” he told listeners. “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Saunders urged students not to repeat his mistakes. “It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than Try to be kinder,” he said.
We put off kindness, Saunders told his audience, because we’re busy doing other things — “let me succeed at this job, and afford this house, and raise these kids, and then, finally, when all is accomplished, I’ll get started on the kindness.”
But if we’re waiting for a cleared schedule of ambitions and obligations to be better people, said Saunders, we’re fooling ourselves.
I’m trying to remember that here in Lent, the season when so many of us try, try again to fulfill all those promises we made to ourselves on New Year’s.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.