The Common Good

Anne Lamott's Commencement Speech at U.C. Berkely: 'You Are Not Your Bank Account ... You Are Spirit.'

Author Anne Lamott, one of our favorite Jesus-loving subversives, recently delivered the undergraduate and interdisciplinary studies commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley.

Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images.
Anne Lamott at the 2010 California Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images.

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Lamott's funny, irreverent, and yes, profound, words of wisdom for the Berkeley graduates included the following, about what she thinks the "truth of their spiritual identity" might be:

Actually, I don’t have a clue.

I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, and whether you get to start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn’t what you do, it’s … well, again, I don’t actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher. But I know that you feel it best when you’re not doing much — when you’re in nature, when you’ve very quiet, or, paradoxically, listening to music.

I know you can feel it and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes; in Chopin and Eminem, Emmylou Harris, Bach, whoever. You can close your eyes and feel the divine spark, concentrated in you, like a little Dr. Seuss firefly. It flickers with aliveness and relief, like an American in a foreign country who suddenly hears someone speaking in English. In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and says, “Yo!”

We can see spirit made visible in people being kind to each other, especially when it’s a really busy person, taking care of a needy annoying person. Or even if it’s terribly important you, stopping to take care of pitiful, pathetic you. In fact, that’s often when we see spirit most brightly. …

You are not your bank account, or your ambitiousness. You’re not the cold clay lump with a big belly you leave behind when you die. You’re not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are spirit, you are love, and, while it is increasingly hard to believe during this presidency, you are free. You’re here to love, and be loved, freely. If you find out next week that you are terminally ill — and we’re all terminally ill on this bus — all that will matter is memories of beauty, that people loved you, and you loved them, and that you tried to help the poor and innocent.

Read the full text of Lamott's commencement address (albeit "shorter and slightly fiddled with," the author says) on Salon.com.

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