Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver presents a banner PLV South graduate Rachel Mulligan, along wtih current students and Unified Sports athletes, recognizing Papillion-La Vista South High School as a National Unified Champion School Tuesday morning.
Photo by Rachel George
The writer is international chairman of Special Olympics.
A month ago, in my role as chairman of Special Olympics, I visited Papillion-La Vista South High School in Nebraska to celebrate an America we don’t often see. The students had done an exceptional job bringing students with and without intellectual disabilities together and creating a culture of inclusion at the school.
When I arrived, the gym was already packed and shaking with noise. Then came the student-leaders — some in wheelchairs and walkers, others as their partners. The place went nuts.
The superintendent said it was the proudest day of his life. A 16-year-old girl — now a partner to a student with a disability — said, “Before I got involved, I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Then I saw that people here need me. Now I can’t wait to get to school every day.”
That event revealed a love of neighbor that no political rally in today’s America shows. The students were excited about including others, not excluding them. There was no shame in that gym because no one was shaming. Their hearts were soaring. They cried tears of joy.
But here’s what worries me. Those students will voting soon, and they’ll be recruited by message gurus, ad-makers and candidates who are experts in making people hate the other side.
There are so many ways those political tactics hurt our country, but here’s the most fundamental one: Hating your neighbor makes people deeply unhappy — a point worth pondering on the Fourth of July.
On this day in 1776, our American ancestors founded this country to secure our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the 241 years since, what have we learned about happiness?
Psychologist Martin Seligman writes, “Today it is accepted without dissent that connections to other people and relationships are what give meaning and purpose to life.” Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, director of one of the world’s longest-running studies on adult life, summarizes 80 years of data in one line, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Good relationships are the deepest source of happiness. Yet it’s the principal strategy of both political parties to poison our relationships.
Both sides energize their base by feeding grievance, encouraging vengeance and saying the other side doesn’t belong. When each side is told by the other that they don’t belong, nobody feels they belong.
Right now, 40 percent of high school students report being disengaged. Almost 50 percent of college students report dangerous levels of anxiety and depression. Opiate addictions have reached epidemic levels. Middle-aged men are committing suicide at rates never seen before. People in all demographics report being afraid of the future.
And instead of trying to ease this feeling of alienation, politicians exploit it.
There is no point drawing another line of division in this country — a division between people who want to exclude and those who prefer to include. We are one and the same. We all have both instincts inside us — the side that gets a dark pleasure from exclusion and the side that gets joy from inclusion. We all do both. The country we become depends on which part of ourselves we emphasize.
Today we obey the partisan voices that urge us to exclude. In America, that’s almost treasonous. The American Project has always been a quest for greater inclusion. We bet the future on our ability to open our arms and take everyone in. We had to include to succeed. We still do.
Both parties stake a claim to patriotism and then argue over what it means. But the overriding need for unity in the country should make us agree on this: The true American patriot today is the citizen or candidate who opposes the politics of the day, reaches across boundaries, brings together adversaries and helps build an America where everybody belongs.
That will be an America that not only pursues happiness, but finds it.