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I’ve Been Thinking … The Power to Heal

This essay by Timothy Shriver was adapted from a recent speech he gave at Mount Sinai’s 2018 Icahn School of Medicine commencement.

In a special way, mothers and fathers, and by them I include any people who have mothered or fathered these graduates, nurtured, held, strengthened, guided them, beam with pride! Stand up right now and tell the graduates: I’m proud of you!

Can you feel the love, graduates? Can you guess what they’re going to say next? Here’s a hint: “Pay off your loans!”

Joke: “the graduation speaker is like the corpse at an Irish wake. You need him to have a party, but you don’t expect much out of him.”

Hopefully, I bring a little more to the day.

Over the last 35 years, I’ve had the unusual chance to have a front row seat to see the best of humanity. I’ve visited early childhood centers where children with differences are included; visited medical schools where doctors are trying to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities; taught in schools where young people are giving their everything to gain a better future; watched as mothers who were told that their child can’t and won’t and shouldn’t matter; rose up with love and fierce determination to bend the arc of history toward love and respect.

Here’s what I’ve learned from all of them: no matter what happens in life, we each have the power to heal. But it’s a power we have to choose. When adversity, rejection, or pain came their way, the folks I’ve worked with over and over again chose to heal.

And nothing could be more important right now. Classmates, you’re graduating at a time where we’re all hungry for healing. By almost any measure, our country is more anxious than ever, more volatile, more afraid of the future, and worst of all, more afraid of each other. And for people with intellectual disabilties, it can seem even worse. They are more likely to be bullied, excluded from health care, isolated at school, and their parents still told that their lives aren’t even worth living. These are the hard realities—in a time where we claim to value diversity and belonging, the most vulnerable are still treated like outsiders and our children still feel like outsiders, too. This is not the best of us!

And here’s what else I’ve discovered: our politics is making us sicker. When graduation season arrives, campaign season comes soon after–whether we want it to or not—and that means we will soon see the work of the world’s best political ad-makers doing the opposite of healing—that is engaging in their special brand of treason: making Americans fear and hate each other.

How did we end up here? The earliest American patriots established the United States to secure our right to the pursuit of happiness. They created a country rooted in the wisdom of the outsider and focused on eliminating the barrier between insiders and outsiders so that no one need feel isolated. Happiness is about relationships, about love of family, friends and country. The more we love our families, the more we love our neighbors, the more we love our country, the happier we are.

Good relationships are our deepest source of health and happiness. That’s a medical and scientific truth. When good people in good relationships encounter tension or adversity, they reach out to one another. They talk it out. They look for common ground. They find ways to bridge the gap and heal. That’s what the athletes of Special Olympics have done for a half century: reach out and heal.

But it is the perverse strategy of both political parties to poison our relationships and stick a dagger in our happiness. Both sides energize their base by dividing us in two, saying the other side isn’t really America.

The other side doesn’t share our values.

The other side doesn’t share our goals.

The other side doesn’t really belong.

When each side is told by the other that they don’t belong, everyone feels alienated. Then the political factions sharpen the edge in their talking points. When they say, “the other side doesn’t share our interests. The other side doesn’t share our values. The other side isn’t one of us,” they add this final curse: “and that makes them bad people.”

These people have never heard or understood the words, “First, do no harm.” You can’t love America and hate your fellow Americans and I am sick and tired of people trying to get me to do just that and in the process, wounding all of our senses of belonging and further dimming the bright light of hope and opportunity to the world that our country has been for centuries. It’s time for to say, ENOUGH!

So I hope you will opt for turning off the noise and tuning out the venom. Let’s spend less time watching the news and more time seeing each other; less time communicating and more time being present. In a country teetering between the joy of inclusion and the agony of exclusion, let’s choose to include and by including, heal.

And there’s no place better to start than right in your practices. You will see all kinds of people in your practices. Try to remember to have eyes to see the person right in front of you, not just their illness or their diagnosis or their country of origin or their political party. We come to you many times intimidated, sometimes ashamed, often afraid. And often, we come with a still deeper wound: the pain that we don’t matter, don’t belong, can’t trust, won’t make it. And how does a doctor heal? To heal those wounds is to affirm the opposite: “You belong. You are worth it. you can soar. You have an infinite value and are worth my time, my training, and all my effort. And not just me. Your community needs you. We all need you.”

Remember your greatest power is to see us, to value us, to affirm that we, too, have power to change and heal and give. That’s where science and spirit meet and when science and spirit meet, there’s nothing we can’t heal.

That is the challenge of our time, playing opposite and in opposition to the state of our politics. It’s not us trying to be something we’re not; instead, it’s us knowing that we’re already something more beautiful than we dare believe—each of us, all of us are gifted, lovable, and hungry for belonging. That’s the power of healing and we find it not just in what we do, but in how we do it—with our heart’s eye open, by seeing with an absence of labels, by seeing without trying to control, by seeing without superiority, by seeing with the eyes of love.

And if you want role models of healing outside your own wonderful mentors and professors, meet the young people of Ponaganset High School. To counter the bullying and tension in their school, the students launched a campaign to change the way every student in the school feels about one another. Their goal: a place where every student feels inspiration and belonging. Their campaign came to be defined by a new pledge now taken by every student. It reads, “As a member of the Ponaganset family, I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied. I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion. I CHOOSE TO INCLUDE!” Notice, these young patriots aren’t dividing; they’re uniting. And they’re not just pledging to accept whoever shows up—they’re going out to find people and beat fear and bring them in.

Or meet the doctor in Kentucky who saw a 42-year-old patient with intellectual disabilities for the first time only to find his mouth full of pain and disease and disfigurement. Rather than bemoan the discrimination that had damaged his health for over 20 years, he did what great doctors do: he operated, treated, and healed his patient and sent him home looking great. He chose to heal

Or follow Scarlett Lewis who rushed to Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012 only to find her 6-year-old son Jesse murdered in school. In the midst of her numbing grief, Scarlett decided to dedicate her life to teaching the lessons of social and emotional learning to children all over the country. Her goal? To explain to all of us that we may not be able to choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond. And she wants us to choose love because that’s what her son Jesse wanted and that’s what his killer, Adam Lanza, needed. Scarlett isn’t choosing revenge. She is all about choose love. She is a healer.

So this is what they’re telling us, fellow graduates: Today’s American patriots are the ones who choose to include by healing the divides. Some patriots are in uniforms and some are in white coats. Some are the athletes of Special Olympics, some are the teachers who give their all for kids not their own. Some are paying the rent and cooking the meals and coaching the teams and building businesses. They share this: They believe in everyone’s power to create a heart opening, consciousness shifting upward spiral of unity. Join me in thanking them. And more, lead your country by being one of them.

You have such a chance! You occupy a special, almost sainted place at the center of society. You are healers. And there is–I’m willing to say–not a single one of us here today who hasn’t at one time or another fallen in love with a doctor who offered us comfort when we were afraid, who told us we could be well when we knew we were ill, who gave us hope when we were in despair. And those experiences were only partly to do with physical healing. They had more to do with your special ability, with your special place in our esteem, to touch our scared or broken hearts and make us whole.

Graduates, this is your time. Lift us up. Bring us together.Your country is counting on you. Heal our bodies but also our hearts. Heal our minds, heal our fear of exclusion, heal our trust in each other, heal our pride in the country we love.

Remember, along with everything else you’ve learned here, to keep the eyes of your heart wide open because if you see our wounds and can heal our spirit, you can heal us and our country, too.

Timothy Shriver is chairman of Special Olympics and co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the world’s leading school reform organization in the field of social, emotional and academic learning.

This essay was featured in the May 20th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.