Special Olympics board chairman, educator, author and campaigner Dr. Timothy Shriver delivered an impassioned address to Brightspot conference attendees around practical ways to move a divided country forward. Here is a summary of his presentation.
"We all want change right now. That's one thing that's universal; we all want change."
But how do we deliver effective change? For our Brightspot User Conference keynote speaker, Timothy Shriver, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was very much ahead of his time in suggesting how.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," Dr. King said in his famous November 1957 sermon in Montgomery, Alabama. "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Tim uses the metaphor of the Two Wolves from Native American folklore to expand on what this sentiment could mean for us as individuals.
Each of us carries within a Good and a Bad Wolf. The one that manifests itself—for example, the angry or the loving—depends on the one which we feed and nourish on any given day.
The cleaving dynamic of division and hatred and acrimony
Right now, says Tim, in our culture we are feeding the hostile, scapegoating Bad Wolf within us.
"Because of that," Tim asserts, "the Good Wolf is starving. He's still there, looking for compassion, looking for connection, looking for trust, looking for belonging, eager to share meaning with others… but that part of us is deeply, deeply wounded."
Underlying this sentiment, Tim cites troubling statistics on the state of disaffection in the United States, with most citizens believing they are living through the lowest point in our country since the Civil War.
He explains: "Our divisions are tearing us apart at the political level and on the personal level. My guess is that among us right now, a quarter of us have had a wounded or a broken relationship in our own families because of the cleaving dynamic of division and hatred and acrimony."
That means that people are exhausted, with further negative feelings driven by what he characterizes as, "the outrage industrial complex." Tribal identities are being strengthened, and our hatred and our demonization of others has elevated.
Other negative features of our current impasse, he believes, include how one in two Americans reports always feeling alone, as well as growing social problems such as suicide, addiction, hostility and community violence.
For Tim, at the base of all this is a basic human willingness to scapegoat others. But he fears we can never create a solution for "us" that doesn't include "them."
He explains: "We're trying to create a solution for the country for some of our biggest problems but think somehow that we can do that if we could just crush or destroy or limit half of the country."
Tools for affecting positive change
If we are in a deep crisis, what could solve it? Tim believes there are encouraging signs that change is coming. "With the empowerment of new voices, those who have been excluded are now finding their strength and their power, we are in the midst of cultural change which is positive in many ways," he says.
We are all looking for new norms, new values, new rituals that could bring us together around common meaning and belonging.
Tim says we need to embrace this desire, as it opens the door to the building of what he calls "a completely new kind of country," one that is open and inclusive, and which could have its own meanings, forms of belonging and its own new structures of purpose.
Tim sees hope for this sort of renewal and cites positive historical precedents.
"As a country, we've responded in the past when we've seen deep injustice accompanied by deep division," he says.
"We found new strategies that transcended division and brought the best of our country together in a way that's more inclusive than it was. Never perfect, but never far from it, either: transformational change that created a new normal that embodied a new consensus around us, a new culture, a set of meanings and purpose."
Tim calls individuals taking on this task "Uniters." Such individuals honor the dignity of the other, solve problems, never demonize others and always look for solutions in which everyone finds their purpose in fulfilling the collective goal.
The promise and openness of shared concern for our neighbors can perhaps best be seen among our younger generation.
Drawing from the message of inclusivity fostered with the Special Olympics, Tim shares the example of a Rhode Island high school whose students have pledged to always support their peers with special needs and individual differences. There, one student named Evan affirms, "I can trust everyone to protect my brother."
Discussing this approach, Tim says: "Imagine what kind of a country would we have if we could do that? Imagine, but don't just imagine: help build it, commit yourself to it. Help build a country where it is safe for all our brothers and sisters.
"And as Evan said so brilliantly, 'When you do that, there is no greater joy.'"
A beautiful challenge, for every one of us
Tim offers a couple of simple tools that could help us avoid feeding the Bad Wolf and enable the positive behavior of uniters rather than dividers.
One is to always assume the positive intent of the other party.
He also shares inspirational thinking from musician Pharrell Williams about choosing empathy, inclusion and love for everybody and not just for those in your team but everyone—even when you disagree with them.
Tim concludes by saying, "That’s a beautiful challenge for each of us to work towards. I'm so grateful that Brightspot has made this kind of challenge a centerpiece of the company it has created, and I'm sure it will continue to grow and make a bigger difference in the future."