George Saunders's 400-Pound Ceo: Goodness or Ideology

By Wiley, W. Brett | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

George Saunders's 400-Pound Ceo: Goodness or Ideology


Wiley, W. Brett, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


During George Saunders's third and final visit to The Colbert Report in 2014, he provided some context for a story central to the message of his now famous commencement address at Syracuse University, a speech subsequently published as the book Congratulations, by the way. In the interview, he described a time in middle school when his classmates were mistreating a new student. Though he knew that this bullying was wrong and mentioned that he did actually come to her aid a few times, ultimately, he said, "I kind of chickened out." Noting that this moment was one of his greatest regrets, Saunders explained to Stephen Colbert that the memory, and his regret, was closely associated to his religious beliefs:

At that time, I was a pretty strong Catholic. I identified closely with
that kind of seventies' idea of Jesus as being so compassionate that he
was comfortable anywhere, and I thought, "Yeah, I could do
that"...[But], at some point, I just said, "Yeah, I'm not going todo
that." And then I could kind of feel myself falling away from that idea
of Jesus I had in my mind, which I think is why I remember it all these
years later. (Colbert Report)

In other words, Saunders's memory of that middle school classmate involved not just regret over his commitment to doing what was right but also his loss of an image of a "compassionate" and "comfortable" Jesus with whom he "identified" at that time, an exemplar who acted. In numerous interviews, Saunders has referenced his Catholic upbringing, including a formal education in Catholic schools, which influenced his impressions of Jesus and his desire to help those around him. Though he is now a practicing Buddhist, those early experiences in the Catholic Church are not something he regrets, as he articulated in a separate interview: "...I loved growing up Catholic. There was something so powerful about the way they respected metaphor, and all of the symbols, and the incense and so on" ("Real as Hell"). In the same interview, he explained that the image of Jesus he described to Stephen Colbert originated in the Church:

In Chicago when I was growing up in the seventies, there was a lot of
that kind of Dorothy Day activist component going on. and at the time I
thought it was the coolest religion, because, compared to my perception
of the Protestant church, it was so in the world, on its feet and sort
of activist. It was all about Jesus as an advocate for change. I loved
it.

His early experience in the Catholic Church captivated him, providing him with the models of Jesus and Dorothy Day, who were compassionate and advocated for change.

Despite feeling drawn to the church and its activism as a child, he eventually realized that his commitment was fleeting. He identifies one specific moment when the difficulty of maintaining an ecstatic devotion became apparent:

I had a couple of really deep experiences in church that were--one in
particular where I just had this--I can't really even articulate it,
but it was just this profound feeling of connection with the lineage of
the Apostles, and so on, just real as hell, and also the feeling...[,]
this fear that that heightened feeling would fade. Which, of course, it
did. That night we went to dinner at a friend's house, and I could feel
that feeling waning, and it felt bad, because I was just in this
incredible zone where I thought: "Wow, now I know how to live the rest
of my life"; and it was like, living for others, and living in a state
of love, and...then it started to drift away, and I lost that feeling.
And that really was a sad thing. ("Real as Hell")

Saunders, at the time, realized that his feelings, though dramatic and sincere, would not endure, a fact that caused him profound disappointment. It is a loss that he still seems to lament. In my interview with him in 2015, when asked about that particular moment, he answered, "you're bringing up that painful memory" (Personal Interview). …

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