Special Olympics chairman talks about love, faith, and our attitudes to difference

On Thursday night, Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver spoke with Berkley Center senior fellow Paul Elie a packed crowd at Riggs Library to promote his new book, Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most. Shriver said that he wanted to share his experiences with individuals with intellectual disabilities because he believed that many people were misinterpreting the nature of his work.

“People would say to me, ‘You are involved with Special Olympics … That’s so sweet what you do for those people … You must be a Catholic.’ And in some ways it was humiliating to hear all that,” he said. “I felt like I was patted on the head as a sort of sweet little boy.”

The pity and condescension that society often gives to people with intellectual disabilities reflects a culture that rewards people and institutions that idolize wealth, power, influence, and intelligence as the sole metrics of success.

Social justice, he believes, should be about human equality instead of transactional relationships between the pitied and those who pity. To Shriver, the Special Olympics is a place where its athletes were a catalyst for him to see the world’s beauty and power in a radically different light.

“In our time, being smart, being rich, being popular, being beautiful, being socially desirable—these are the iconic ways of finding belonging. So what does a person with Down’s Syndrome represent? A lot of things, but not that,” he said.

In the Catholic gospel, beyond the messages of social justice, Shriver found that he could cross our unconscious fear of certain individuals.

“I think the insight that I came to was Jesus may have been not so much interested in social order … He knew that souls needed to go beyond their comfort zone in order to be free of the fear of loving everyone. You can’t love and still have fear,” he said. “We draw the line. I can help a guy who’s homeless but it’s a little bit uncomfortable.”

At the very end, Shriver invited Maureen, who spent much of her childhood loving and playing with Shriver’s family, to address the audience on how she inspires other individuals about her life.

“I think I have some ability to make people believe they can do anything,” she said.

Photo: Kenneth Lee/Georgetown Voice

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