"What I Regret Most In My Life Are Failures of Kindness."

Let me point you to the best thing you'll read today, and perhaps for many, many days.

It is author George Saunders's convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. I won't abstract the speech here. There are too many wonderful lines and it needs to be read in its entirety. It is a profound meditation on many of the themes that have preoccupied me and my writing here. The centrality of kindness. That sin in the form of selfishness and self-absorption is deeply ingrained. And that because of this kindness is very, very hard. And that immersion in a spiritual tradition can help with this struggle.

The address can be read here.

A recent NY Times profile of Saunders and his new book Tenth of December can be read here. In that profile Saunders is asked to reflect on the spiritual and redemptive aspects of his stories, the grace he often describes in relation to death. His answer:
I asked [Saunders] about the occasional dramatization in his stories of the moments after death, the way characters’ lives are sometimes suddenly reframed and redeemed. “In terms of dramatic structure, I don’t really buy the humanist verities anymore,” he said. “I mean, I buy them, they’re a subset of what’s true. But they’re not sufficient. They wouldn’t do much for me on my deathbed. Look at it another way. We’re here. We’re nice guys. We’re doing O.K. But we know that in X number of years, we won’t be here, and between now and then something unpleasant is gonna happen, or at least potentially unpleasant and scary. And when we turn to try and understand that, I don’t really think the humanist verities are quite enough. Because that would be crazy if they were. It would be so weird if we knew just as much as we needed to know to answer all the questions of the universe. Wouldn’t that be freaky? Whereas the probability is high that there is a vast reality that we have no way to perceive, that’s actually bearing down on us now and influencing everything. The idea of saying, ‘Well, we can’t see it, therefore we don’t need to see it,’ seems really weird to me.”

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6 thoughts on “"What I Regret Most In My Life Are Failures of Kindness." ”

  1. "...the probability is high that there is a vast reality that we have no way to perceive..."

    I completely agree, but think the humanist rebuttal can help us make a larger and--perhaps--more important point. I keep coming back to a pithy story I heard David Frost (British TV icon) tell over 20 years ago on a National Press Club broadcast. Recounting it as his most embarrassing moment, Frost told of interviewing Isaac Asimov about his atheism and challenging him by asking, "But isn't it possible that there's something out there that we just don't know about?" To which Asimov responded, "Yes, but then we just don't know about it." James called this wonder about which no intellectual traction can be gained "the ontological wonder sickness."

    Here's the larger point: the faith position seems to empty us of power intellectually (which is not to be conflated with saying that it's foolish) while it simultaneously challenges us to use the power we do have to be loving and kind and good. But a rationale comes together here, as it seems that we ought not have power till we can use it for good; it makes sense that a faith journey would begin with just such powerlessness,

    It's not a peak behind the veil of ignorance, but a rationale for that veil.

    I look forward to reading the address later today. Thank you!

  2. Such great thoughts and advice. Profound in many ways. Also, loved the poem you wrote for your mom. Thanks for letting us in on it!

  3. Loved this. If you haven't picked up "Tenth of December," do so ASAP. It's fantastic.

  4. Me too.

    And one the bigger revelations of my adult life was/is my coming to understand this notion.

    I was an uncomfortable, often unhappy kid, and I think for a long time I looked at my life from that perspective, mostly seeing the ways in which other people negatively affected me. Honestly, it probably wasn't until after I became a parent that I fully awoke to the the idea that my biggest regrets, and most troubling memories, were those times when I had not acted with full kindness and compassion toward others.

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