New York Times bestselling-author George Saunders gave a commencement speech at Syracuse University this past May that’s just beginning to get attention. Most commencement speeches are just terrible, but every year or so a good one stands out. Saunders’s speech is one of the good ones. (You can read the entire text here.)
His theme is kindness, and he wishes that people were kinder to each other. He begins with some poignant examples from his own life, and then he attempts to answer why we fail at being kind to one another.
Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
Saunders exhibits real insight in his message. Most everyone wishes they were kinder, but most everyone fails rather miserably. We recognize these “confusions” at work in our own lives, but it’s difficult to move past them. Saunders used the final minutes of his speech to advise the graduates how they might solve the problem of unkindness. He says that the remedy for this confusion is intentional kindness. In order to be kind, be kinder.
His analysis at this point is much less helpful. He’s identified the problem, but his advice on doing kindness is a bit problematic. It’s like telling a sick man, “You know, the cure for your illness is being healthy.” Gee. Thanks.
The first step in recovery is admitting that we have a problem, so let’s call things by their proper names. These aren’t really “confusions.” They’re lies. They are things that we tell ourselves that aren’t true. Traditionally, we haven’t called the lies we tell ourselves “confusions.” We’ve called them “sin.”
These lies on Saunders’s list reach back to the Garden of Eden. “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Each of those three things on Saunders’s list is true of God but not true of us; however, our sin causes us to forget that God is God and we are not.
The indictment is accurate. We aren’t God. The cure is false. Saunders cannot save a graduating class merely by telling them to sin less often. I hope they heed his words and give it a try so that they will see how futile and hollow this advice is.
The only hope for sinners is Christ, and we must cast ourselves on him. He’s the one who really is the center of the universe and whose personal story is the main and most interesting story. He’s the one who is separate from the universe, though he graciously entered into it to save rebels by sacrificing himself in their place. He’s the one who is permanent because he broke the tyranny of death at his resurrection. He has shown us kindness, and because of that kindness, we can be kind to one another.