On Kindness, Compassion and Perspective

Blog # 157

I have never been much of a fan of inspirational and motivational books, with the exceptions that follow. Two of the authors whom I find brilliant, engaging and thought provocative are David Foster Wallace (DFW), author of Infinite Jest and George Saunders (GS), author of Tenth of December. Both delivered noteworthy and inspirational addresses to graduating college students. DFW’s commencement address was to the class of 2005 at Kenyon College and GS’s convocation address was to the 2014 graduating class at Syracuse University. The speeches have been immortalized in the form of short books, both of which I keep at my bedside table, and pick up periodically to reread. The messages conveyed are meaningful and well, grounding, …helping me to achieve perspective. DFW’s book is This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life; GS’s book is Congratulations By The Way: Some Thoughts On Kindness.

I highly recommend listening to DFW and GS deliver their respective addresses. It will be well worth a thirty minute or so investment of your time! (DFW: 23 minutes; GS: 12 minutes); they are on YouTube at the following sites:



These addresses share much in common, being chock full of wisdom and providing simple, yet powerful messages that strike a chord deep within our hearts. They resonate with our human longing to lead lives that are less self-centered and arrogant, and more compassionate, kinder, richer and filled with love.

DFW’s key points are the following:

o   The most obvious, ubiquitous and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

o   Our default setting is that we are at the center of the universe and we “see and interpret everything through the lens of self.

o   Those who can adjust their natural default setting are often described as being “well-adjusted,” which he suggests is not an accidental term.

o   “The most dangerous thing about an academic education is that it enables our tendency to over-intellectualize…to get lost in abstract thinking instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of us—instead of paying attention to what’s going on inside us.

o   It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside our heads.

o   Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what we think…being conscious and aware enough to choose what we pay attention to and to choose how to construct meaning from experience.

o   The real value of a liberal arts education is about how to keep from going through our comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult lives dead, unconscious, a slave to our heads and our natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

o   The freedom of real education is that we get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

o   Everybody worships—the only choice we get is what to worship… an outstanding reason for choosing a spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much everything else we worship—money and things, our own body and beauty and sexual allure, power, our intellect—will eat us alive.

o   The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

GS’s key points are the following:

o   His main regrets in life are “failures of kindness”…those moments when another human being was there in front of him, suffering and he responded… mildly, reservedly, sensibly.

o   Our failures of kindness are due to built in “Darwinian confusions”: that one’s personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story; that an individual is separate from the universe; and life is permanent.

o   We don’t really believe these Darwinian confusions, but we live by them, causing us to prioritize our needs over those of others, even though what we really want in our hearts is to be less selfish, more aware and present, more open and more loving.

o   The avenue to achieving these goals is education, immersion in a work of art, meditation, frank talks with friends, prayer, meditation, spirituality.

o   There is a natural tendency for becoming less selfish with aging, as self diminishes and love increases.

In my collection of quotations, I found one by Albert Einstein that is relevant to this discussion:

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the universe, a part limited bytime and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

The sage messages conveyed by David Foster Wallace, George Saunders and Albert Einstein serve as reality checks that we are indeed mortal and largely insignificant specks in the grand universe, despite the fact that we often fantasize that we are immortal and are the key actors in the play called “Life.” Introspection, kindness and compassion are capable of connecting the insignificant specks into a whole that is so much more meaningful than the sum of its parts. Happy Father’s Day weekend to all!


Andrew Siegel, M.D.


A new blog is posted every week. To receive the blogs in the in box of your email go to the following link and click on “email subscription”:


Author of: Male Pelvic Fitness: Optimizing Sexual and Urinary Health; available in e-book (Kindle, iBook, Nook); paperback coming soon!



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: