All over the world today, volunteers come to the games to be reminded that fear cannot withstand a direct gaze. Over and over again, they find themselves believing anew in the power of their own imaginations to conjure distinctive visions of what is possible and to see that possibility as theirs to bring to life. In laughter and smiles and tears, the athletes remind us to realize that ideals like “heaven” are not places we go but rather the place where we belong already. They invite us to unlock the greatest source of energy and power known to humankind: the recognition that each person is already everything that he or she desires to be and, in that recognition, to know that we each deserve to live that truth with affirmation and delight.
The athletes of Special Olympics are the unlikely teachers of these secrets. The recurring question that most of us face in our encounters with them is this: Is it possible that those on the edge— those people we consider “different” and those parts of ourselves that we hide— are a pathway to strength and unity? What I’ve found is a simple answer: there is no other pathway. To live fully alive is to do what so many of these athletes have done: face the fear— whatever fear lies within each
of us and within our countries— and in facing it, break its hold and defeat it. And when the fear is defeated, we are free to be ourselves, to pursue our unique gifts and dreams, to find the places and people to whom we belong and with whom we are affirmed, and together with them, to give ourselves unselfishly to life.
I think belief is at the heart of why the Special Olympics adventure still attracts millions of devoted advocates and volunteers and friends every day around the world, and why it inspires them not just to work for a more inclusive future but also to be more fearless in pursuing their own dreams. At some level, playing together awakens us all to the possibility of believing in one another and not being afraid. I think that’s why more than ten thousand medical professionals have joined the Special Olympics movement and, under the leadership of pioneers Dr. Steve Perlman and Dr. Paul Berman, created a program all their own, “Healthy Athletes.” Together, they work to provide free health care at Special Olympics games all over the world for hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise might never have it. They came to help and found a way to believe.
I think that’s why hundreds of thousands of non-disabled school-age young people around the world are participating in Special Olympics Unified Sports, in their schools and neighborhoods. I think that’s why a whole team of them, led by my son Tim and his friend Soeren Palumbo and Loretta Claiborne and the actor Eddie Barbanell, found the energy to change hearts all over the world with their appeal to “Spread the Word to End the Word” and end the humiliating use of the word “retard.” They work to change attitudes, but what they really do is create believers.
I think that’s why there are more than a million athletes in both China and India who participate every year in thousands of volunteer-driven Special Olympics games. I think that’s why tens of thousands of law enforcement officers around the world carry the Special Olympics torch to raise money and dignity. I think that’s why volunteers continue to join in countries such as Lebanon and Morocco and Rwanda and Malawi and Afghanistan and Myanmar. In the poorest villages of those countries, volunteers are assembling today, preparing fields for games, inviting families to join support networks, following the leadership of people with intellectual disabilities, and promoting the gifts of those same people—thus, the gifts of all of us—to anyone who will listen. Pick a day and offer to volunteer and chances are, the opportunity will be yours. You may come to give your time, but you are likely to leave believing in something that transcends time.
I think what these volunteers have in common is that they have all been cracked open just enough to know that a world of believing is a world in which they want to live. In a moment, in the blink of an eye, in a smile or a cheer or a goal scored in the most pure and beautiful of ways, they are given back their imaginations, not the ones they first used as children but their fully adult imaginations, free to believe, free to be in love, free to follow believing wherever it leads. It is no small irony that many of us stumble into this encounter with believing through the athletes who seem to represent our darkest doubts and fears. It is absolutely miraculous that through them we become suddenly less afraid and suddenly more confident in the unimaginable beauty of life.
TIMOTHY SHRIVER is an educator, a social activist, a film producer, and an entrepreneur. He has led Special Olympics, an organization that serves upward of four million athletes in 170 countries, for more than a decade. Shriver is perhaps best known for cofounding—and currently chairing—the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the leading research organization in the United States in the field of social and emotional learning. He lives in Maryland with his wife. They have five children.
Copyright © 2014 by Timothy Shriver