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George Saunders to Syracuse grads: Find the cure for selfishness

In January, the New York Times Magazine published an effusive profile of George Saunders, a wonderful and highly celebrated fiction writer and (it would seem) a wise and humble and fascinating man. (Saunders also talked to the website The Awl about faith; John McGreevy linked to that interview in March.) [Update: his latest collection is reviewed by John Garvey in the August issue of Commonweal.]

Now the NYT Mag has published a commencement speech given by Saunders at Syracuse University on its blog, and friends of mine have been linking to it on Facebook all day. I thought I'd read enough exemplary commencement speeches, especially since it's August -- but they're right, this is one you want to read.

"What I regret most in my life," Saunders told the graduates, "are failures of kindness.Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly." Not cruelly, in other words, just not compassionately enough. He describes a particular encounter from his childhood, and similar moments in my own life sprang to mind immediately. What rankles, in retrospect, is the knowledge of how little being kind -- or loving, or charitable -- would have cost me, and how much good it might have done.

With that in mind, Saunders suggests being "kinder" as a worthy goal in life. And he offers a convincing explanation for why it's so difficult to achieve. His analysis is gentle, probing, challenging -- a fine sermon in a secular frame. But his is not an entirely secular perspective -- "be kind" is not a cheap replacement for "be moral" or "be good." And I was grateful that his prescription for achieving kindness makes room for religion as a means to that end. How can we become "less selfish...more open, and more loving"?

Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Saunders talks about selfishness as a sickness, and urges the graduates to pursue a cure. (Read it all here.) I think that's a fairly good explanation of what religion is supposed to be. What do you think? And if you agree, is it working?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I was suprised to see a young (30 year old as they say brought up Catholic, aka, not praciticing) relative of mine post this on his Facebook.




I was suprised to see a young (30 year old as they say brought up Catholic, aka, not praciticing) relative of mine post this on his Facebook.


- See more at:


Not to say that ‘kindness” and “mercy” are the same thing, but still, I’m wondering if a comparison can be made between what Saunders said, and what Francis said in his news conference on the way back to Rome.

John Allen spoke of “the one-word interpretive key to Francis' news conference and arguably to his entire papacy to date: "mercy." He spoke of Francis “insisting what the world needs to hear from the church above all today is a message of compassion.”  Said Francis in the news conference, “I believe this is the time of mercy. . . . The church is a mother. . . and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no?

Gene --

Indeed that statement of Francis' about mercy is splendid, and John Allen's article relating it to the rest of his papacy is particularly good.  The article is at:

I do believe that Allen is right:  mercy is Francis' central theme, and that is why people are responding so strongly to him.

I'd say that mercy includes kindness, but goes beyond kindness by adding forgiveness.

I've been a fan of Saunders' since "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil." A frequent theme in his stories--getting stronger in his "Tenth of December" collection--is the struggle Our Young People have reaching beyond conventional consumerism, hover parenting, and other modern strictures, to make real connections with other people. Youth are often victims in his stories, hapless, inarticulate, somewhat stupid, but the implication is that they mirror our vapid culture ... and still there is that spark of the soul that can't be killed in them. 

As a cradle Catholic, the Church should be proud of having shaped Saunders' sensibilities ... and perhaps sorry that it lost him.

It is now really axiomatic that many people who have no religion act better than many people who belong to a religion. The so-called humanist vs the Christian as far as goodness is concerned. While much of this is true I am always suspicious of humanists who think they can do it without God. In my experience my closeness to God always made me a kinder, charitable person. Away from God, though the talk might have been there, the walk was not. Jesus said: "Without me you can do nothing."

Virtue without God is always suspect , no matter how genuine it may seem. 

I quickly realized that this was not about this man:

I like Mollie's query about whether religion is the quest to find a cure for selfishness. I'm don't know if Saunders is a "humanist," and I'm not sure that I think that humanists, as Bill suggests, try are trying to "do it" without God, just without a church (unless they're Unitarians, though some of them prefer the term "fellowships"). That's not to knock churches, of course. I stay loosely connected to the Church (Raber and I have been reading about Dorothy Day this summer) because that's where I'm most likely to get a knock upside the head about whether I'm really seeking the "cure" or whether I'm just rationalizing my actions so I can sleep good at night.

Jimmy, no, not the same, but wasn't he great in "Rebecca"?

The prescription for selfishenss?   Children.

Prescription for selfishness is not children. There are far too many neglected children.

At the risk of starting a rhetorical war, children are being farmed out to institutions ("pre-kindegarten or junior kindegarten, proposals to start pre-school, daycare, childcare, etc, etc.) so that parents can work to maintain what they think is a decent standard of living so the the child is not disadvantaged.

Now in many instances this is an economic necessity but not all instances. When my daughter was born, we downsized, went into debt, so that my wife could stay home to care for daughter until she was able to go to school and wife could begin to work part time. I know many women would like to be able to do this but there are multiple demands. I think we need to get priorities straight. 

We should be doing everything we can to encourage parents to stay home with their children including extending maternity/paternity benefits to four or five years. There is no need to erect daycare centres under the auspices of early childhood education.


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