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?

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

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