Timothy P. Shriver, PhD
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
May 20, 2012
Thank you, Samantha. The president said he had no choice but to give me this degree after your wonderful introduction.
To the deans, the faculty, Cara Mazzarini, my fellow honorary degree recipients, Dr. Benjamin and James Sinegal, to all of you, to family and parents, to all of those who mother or father—all of those who recognize that mothering or fathering someone is a verb and not just a noun—I congratulate you who have helped bring these graduates to this enormous moment of pride.
We want to tell you all, repeat after me, “we are proud of you!” The next thing you are going to hear from those mothers, fathers and families is, “get a job!” We’re very proud of you, but we want you to have revenue!
Fellow graduates and new members of the Villanova Alumni Association Facebook page: I hate to tell you this but I got this diploma without paying a single bill. And, I really don’t know how a guy who graduated from UConn was selected to come to this stage. I think it is because I was on the Colbert Report. But I’m a Villanova fan now!
Graduates, I am sorry to tell you that this is the end of the fun phase of your life. You think I’m kidding, don’t you? I’m not. This is the end of having a beer too many and as a result of having a beer too many, hooking up with someone you didn’t mean to hook up with. As a result of that, you made the mistake of getting a body piercing in a place you didn’t intend and then you got an infection no one has ever heard of. All that is over. As you Augustinians know, this is the pre phase of life. You are now converted.
Every graduation speech is supposed to begin with a joke. I don’t have a joke, but I called an Irish friend of mine looking for one and he said, “Tim. Don’t worry about what you say. The graduation speaker is just like the deceased at an Irish wake: you need them to have a party, but you don’t expect very much out of them!”
So there are low expectations for me and I’m thrilled by that. But I can deliver on one expectation, and that is to say to each and every one of you: Thank you. From the whole world of Special Olympics—over 4 million athletes all over the world, more than 50,000 games every year in 180 countries—I want to thank the students of this University for being the most inspired collegiate Special Olympics program in the world.
This University and all of you are role models for the idea that Special Olympics is not an event, it’s a movement. It’s not about “them,” but is about all of “us.” It’s about the gift of giving and the gift of receiving that are interchangeable parts of the Special Olympics experience. It’s about the idea that there are in the human family a million abilities but no disabilities. It is about the idea that you are leaders of a dignity revolution. Every time an athlete in this movement stands astride the medal stand and is awarded his or her medal for achievement, for enduring, for grit and for determination, you strike a victory in the dignity revolution that is a victory for each and every one of us, and I thank you. I thank every one of the 4000 volunteers the committees, the people on those committees and everyone who in any way contributes—sponsors, volunteers, donors, and friends—the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival. You are role models and I thank you for all of that.
But thank you is not enough. I also want to invite you to stay with this movement. Whether or not you volunteered for the fall festival and regardless of what your major was or your job will be, every one of you can be leaders of the dignity revolution the whole world over. You can help us lead the fight for dignity for the 200-300 million people all over the world who have intellectual differences and by doing that, you can unleash the human spirit in each of us.
You may wonder, “how can I do that?” Easy. Start right now in your own school, what I call the School of the Heart; the school where you’ll experience the pathway to something much bigger than you and maybe something that’s infinitely smaller, too. Let’s open class for one last lesson now.
Imagine for a moment, that we are all gathered here, not for this extraordinary Commencement, but for a race, the real “Amazing Race” of the Special Olympics movement. Imagine that behind me here is this track and you are seated in the bleachers and scattered around during the Fall Festival.
You are sitting in those bleachers preparing to watch a 100 meter race. And walking over to the starting line are six Special Olympics athletes, let’s say 10 or 11 years old. As they go to the starting line, one of them looks up to the stands and catches your eye. At some level, in that moment, you know a large part of her story; you know that when she was born, the doctor probably said, “I’m sorry.” You know that she didn’t walk at one but maybe not until she was two. You know that speaking might be difficult for her, that finding day care was difficult for her parents, that most schools didn’t want her, that it was hard to make friends, that every day is a fight. You know, in other words, that the world has probably sent one huge message to her: “You are dis-abled. I’m sorry.”
Then your mind comes back to the Fall Festival and you hear the gun sound and the race is on. And down the track she runs, arms striding, staying in her lane. She crosses the finish line in third place. Her arms are up high in the air, waving. Again, she looks up to the stands and you can see now that her mother is near you. The mother is cheering, “Yay! That’s my girl!” And you know her mother loves her as much as any mother loves any child. Your eye catches hers again. Perhaps you wonder, what is this world I am in here at the Fall Festival? What is this world where a child can be so proud, where a mother can be so unashamedly in love with her daughter, where third place is a win? Is this a fantasy? Or perhaps this is another reality, “another intensity,” in the words of TS Eliot, a breaking through to your heart as if to send a message: she is perfectly made and you are, too.
Yes, that’s the message. Run. Leave it all on the field. Give the world every ounce of energy you’ve got and then raise your arms in victory, download the spirit, feel the joyful and precious tenderness of yourself, look into the eyes that made you and hear them say, “you are perfectly made!”
"Perfectly made” is the expression of a young woman in a New York high school who has just set up her own website that says, “You Are Pefectly Made.” That’s the message of the Special Olympics and that student, Mariely Garcia, has it.
Do you realize how revolutionary it is to create a world where that message is sent? It was just a few decades ago that my own grandmother, who had a child with an intellectual difference, was told her daughter was “retarded.” She wrote in her journal that she was “heartbroken.” “There was nothing for Rosemary,” she said over and over again. “Nothing.”
And it was just a few months ago that three year old Amelia Rivera was told by a hospital just a stone’s throw from here that she was not going to be given a transplant because she was, and I quote, “mentally retarded.” “Is that the only reason?” her mother asked. “Yes,” the doctor replied.
And yet all of you here and your fellow volunteers and athletes around the world—almost a million in China, almost a million in India, athletes in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan—are all sending a different message.
I am bold enough to believe that message is close to the heart of a Villanova education. Truly, at that Fall Festival, you did something amazing. But if you were not paying attention, you might have missed the way in which what you did upended the world.
You might just think that the Fall Festival was just hard work and logistics and pageantry, but if you saw it with what St. Augustine called “learned ignorance,” the kind of ignorance you learn at the School of the Heart, you saw it differently. You can’t see that little girl as a winner with your SAT mind or your LSAT mind. You can’t see her with your GPA mind or your resume or CV mind. You’ll need that mind for a lot of things and that mind will help you give a lot of things to a lot of people, but you can’t see the athletes of Special Olympics as winners with it. To see them, you need learned ignorance and open your heart as “an organ of perception” to see what that little girl offers the world.
Your own wonderful professor, Martin Laird, has written beautifully this topic. He speaks of finding a “deep inner freedom, even in the midst of all sorts of constraints, limitations, trials, failings and responsibilities.” This inner calm is the lesson I think comes through these moments of Special Olympics.
We have to unlearn that huge cloud of judgment that we carry around with us. It’s so big that sometimes we don’t even realize there is a sunny alternative. We think it’s bad to be slow, bad to be dependent, bad to be vulnerable. We think our past, our hurts and our wounds label us and limit us. We’re afraid that our own vulnerabilities might be exposed or that we’ll someday become dis-abled, like someone in our family who has Alzheimer’s or someone who has a child who has a difference. If we become like that, we’ll become an invalid—an in-valid—won’t we?
We think that way. It’s terrifying. We’ve all heard it said, “there but for the grace of God go I.” As if to say, “if we went there, even God would abandon us.” Abandoned who? The athletes of Special Olympics.
But then something different calls out and the world is turned upside down. She is a winner, isn’t she? She is a beautiful human being, isn’t she? When her mother held her as a baby, she held an angel didn’t she? When she smiles, it’s like she’s a drive shaft of love isn’t it? You can see it, but you have to intersect the world with a moment of contemplative action. You have to see the beauty that she has that has no vanity. The victory where no one is defeated. The lovability of her breaking through to the lovability of you.
If you’re with me, try this. Pretend that you just ran that same race. Raise your arms in victory now, graduates. Raise your arms and trust. Think about what it means to have your arms up high like that. You may be giggling a little bit. That’s the inner child within you who wants to have its arms up, who wants to please the world. Think about how funny it feels to be that open and realize it’s much better to be open than to be disparaging or distrustful.
Mothers and Fathers, you can raise your arms, too. You’ve won a victory. Try it. See how funny it feels, how freeing it feels. Brothers and sisters raise your arms. Put them up high.
Are you perfectly made? Yes, you are!
I feel better now and I hope you do, too.
This my friends, is the way you can begin to attend your own School of the Heart. This is the school where you ask the “why” questions, not so much the “what” questions. The “why” is the syllabus is your life. Every sunrise is a quiz. Every person you meet is a new reading; try to look beyond the cover to what lies within. Every moment of sadness is an invitation to visit the professor. You never graduate from this school. There is a final, but you won’t attend it here.
But what you will attend here is beautiful beyond compare, but you have to be here to see it. There are a lot of distractions that will try to take your heart away. Economic stress, social stress, it can seem overwhelming. Your mind will so often be elsewhere—it will tempt you to think there is some other place you should be right now.
But if you are somewhere else, you can’t see the beauty in front of you right here. To the left of you. The right of you. In front of you. I promise you your heart does not want to be somewhere else. Your heart wants to be here. Always here.
I know it’s tempting to text about the party later tonight. I know that if this speech goes on much longer, you’ll worry about your parents and all that kind of stuff. But try to stay here. That’s rule #1 of the School of the Heart. Try every day to practice being quiet. And if you want to go to the extreme, every day try doing nothing. Yes, do nothing. Contrary to popular opinion, that is much harder to do than you think. If you don’t believe me that doing nothing is important, just ask Jesus or Buddha or Augustine or Father Martin Laird. Unless you do nothing often, it will be very difficult to see with the eye of the heart.
Rule 2. Encounter others in gentleness and recognition. In a special way, encounter those who are left out—as equals. Don’t judge them, don’t assume that you are better than someone who is different. I promise you that if you encounter people with intellectual disabilities, they will find a window into your heart.
And maybe I might add, as people of faith in this community, let us also commit to encountering another group of perfectly made human beings who have been too frequently overlooked: women and even the divine feminine. The creator of the universe has no gender and there is masculine and feminine within all of us that is authoritative because it was made by the author of life. I ask you to be the generation that spends enough time in the School of the Heart to heal the age old exclusion of women and follow our own women religious as authentic teachers of faith.
Finally, one last rule from the School of the Heart: citizenship and politics are deeply practices of the spirit. Help this country, young people, renew a citizenship of spirit. This nation is hungry not for the politics of religion but for a spiritualized politics that can heal the harsh, demeaning and mean spirited divisiveness that is all around us. Politics should be about the longings of our hearts for something bigger, to make something bigger here among ourselves together. Bring us that kind of spiritualized politics with your heart.
So off you go, fellow graduates, to life. Take with you your diplomas, your memories, your idealism, your determination, and your heart. Don’t be jaded by the narrow or selfish talk around you. “Love,” as the poet Rumi wrote, is “recklessness.” Be reckless in trying, in believing, in trusting your life.
This is a moment of enormous change. I believe deeply that the universe is open. Dignity is our common currency and it is asking you to lead a revolution. Lead it with the fun of human recognition, fight it with the tools of peace and forgiveness and wage it with kindness to all. And may you discover in every week and every day and every moment, the quiet attention necessary to raise your arms in reckless happiness and recognize in yourself and in others, the face of God.
Congratulations, graduates of Villanova University!