BY CHRISTINE REDMAN-WALDEYER & LYNNE McENIRY, MFA – What is self-actualization? Psychologist Abraham Maslow saw it as a climb up a pyramid towards a higher self. If basic needs are met, then the climb would take a natural course towards self-esteem and belonging that would eventually pave the way towards servant leadership. If you have seen the Mayan ruins, you can envision a climb towards a breathtaking view of landscape once covered by ancient forest. It’s a climb tourists see as a challenge; it’s a climb out of the desire to say “I did it.” For social leader, film producer, advocate, Special Olympics Chairman, and author Tim Shriver, self-actualization grows out of a desire for self-fulfillment. In his newly-released memoir, Fully Alive, Shriver shares many stories and personal insights that express how this desire is not a selfish longing; it’s a desire that aches to serve others. It’s an ache that leads to finding that God dwells within. In a recent interview, Shriver said of his memoir: “It’s not a Shriver story or a Kennedy story; it’s everyone’s pathway. It is looking for what matters most in an unlikely place and with what some might perceive to be unlikely people.” He said he wanted to take a risk with writing this book, just like Special Olympic athletes and their families do, so he put himself out there and admits to weakness, mistakes, and self-doubt. “I didn’t set out to write that book, but I had to be honest. It’s a little scary but that was the least I could do in tribute to those who have taught me incredible lessons – THANK YOU! This book is a 200-plus-page thank-you.” This gratitude that Shriver expresses is meant particularly for all of the kids with intellectual disabilities and their families he has met over the course of his lifetime, whether or not their stories appear in this memoir. Shriver is passionate about how this book is about telling all those parents to be proud of their children. Through the sharing of his own family experiences and his stories of invaluable encounters with Special Olympics families, Shriver invites parents of children with intellectual disabilities to step out into the greatness, to be proud, to show their guts. “Own that you love your children unconditionally. Your love for your children and the time you invite me to share with your families has made me immeasurably better.” The author continued: “It’s a nexus of value. Trusting people against your instincts. The book is not a how-to book. It is not a formula that offers some easy way. It’s the universal story of moms and dads who are gutsy, courageous, gritty faithful people.” The deeply honest and profoundly inspiring experiences in Shriver’s memoir challenge readers to become everything they are capable of becoming and nothing less. He said that this book is about three things: stopping and looking inward, seeing the world differently through the eyes of love, and it’s about serving, “because when you find/claim your best self, you give yourself away.” “I want to give back what I got,” Shriver said. These are the very values that Shriver learned best from his ongoing interactions with individuals with intellectual disabilities. They help him to understand the “grit” he defines as the backbone of our Special Olympics athletes. Through Shriver’s lens we can better understand what “grit” is. It’s in the families who turn a deaf ear to the societies who call their children “cabbage,” who ask them to let their babies starve. Grit is in those families who seek out help despite what, by all accounts, seems hopeless. In this book, Baby Pearl stands as a beacon of light in a harsh environment. Her parents display grit when they reject the norms that reject their daughter. Shriver also introduces us to Daniel Thompson, a young man, whose “grit” falls into the unfamiliar. Daniel is genuinely happy for a competitor who beats him after a successive winning streak. Shriver recounts how Daniel explains gently that he has all he needs; another win is not as important as the win needed by the competitor who was ready to give up. When tragedy strikes for Daniel, we who are reading the story experience the depth of vulnerability that Shriver opens himself to in the writing of this book. “I grew up in a time when people thought sadness and grief were signs of weakness,” Shriver said when asked how he expresses his experiences of grief in his memoir. “Authentic grieving is facing that pain directly. It is not self-absorbed or maudlin, I tell the athletes: a good cry is the best way to get to a good smile.” Shriver continued: “Sadness is not weakness, it is a sign of love. You are only as sad as you have been loved. Grieve openly and there will be healing.” Shriver mentioned that Daniel taught him this. The story of their great friendship is one of this memoir’s highlights, which Shriver hopes will give people the license to grieve openly and authentically, to heal and move forward stronger than before. More than grit and grief, Shriver helps us to better understand our own fears that distance us from others. Fully Alive takes us on a journey of history, one that precedes our existence, one that presses us to categorize and eliminate what we think we cannot understand. Shriver presses us to live in the moment, to live life fully in spite of ourselves. He asks us to learn from his athletes, just as he has. Well-known Special Olympics athletic runner, Loretta Claiborne, friend and mentor to Shriver, sees clearly that everyone puts their pants on the same way. Shirver’s account of how Loretta came to share these words of wisdom with him tells of a simple statement, but a statement with much power—one that determines how intimidation (so often self-inflicted) is our own worst stumbling block. A central message is made clear through Loretta’s story: the measure isn’t who you beat; it’s how you feel about your own expectations for yourself. It’s about encouraging yourself or your children to do their best. Shriver said that an athlete’s mother told him that the definition of excellence is doing your best. “Athletes and the Special Olympics movement taught me rigor, discipline, focus, finding your own sweet spot. We set our own bar and we don’t compare our bar to someone else’s bar. You don’t look to the right or the left; you look at yourself.” Current culture doesn’t give us direction or the opportunity to discover what matters most. “What the culture does, doesn’t satisfy,” he said. Shriver said the book recounts examples of the bravery, affection, and tenderness of Special Olympic athletes. These experiences matter the most. While he does write about his own religious beliefs and experience in Fully Alive, Shriver believes that people don’t need a religious tradition to live bravely and tenderly. “We just have to come together, celebrating what does matter; the tenderness, and so on, so you feel the best you’ve ever felt in your life.” He knows that special needs kids and their families learn this the hard way: “Not hard because they live with intellectual disabilities, but hard because they have to get rid of what the culture tells them about their child.” The memoir exhibits how these families have to come to the bravery and tenderness through pain caused by a culture that is often not opening or understanding. They are models of mercy and grace. We learn much of Shriver’s personal journey as we read deeper into the memoir. This is a journey that seeks a path to inner peace, through working towards spiritual awareness, a journey that aims towards a consciousness of what family stands for and where family loyalties lift and pull. In his vulnerable, reflective memoir, Shriver takes us briefly through his love trials and tribulations and then moves us to the personal stories of athletes who emerge – throughout his life and within the pages of this book – to fill a void that his Aunt Rosemary left behind. Rosemary was one of nine siblings of the Kennedy family, sister to his mother, Eunice, and his uncle, former president John F. Kennedy. She was more than the woman who lived her life as a Kennedy with an intellectual disability. She symbolizes disrepair—a condition of being due to neglect. Yet, for author and reader alike, Rosemary transforms that disrepair into unconditional love and commitment to others. Upon being asked when that transformation most likely began for him, Shriver said it was with the creation of Camp Shriver when he was four years old. “One hundred kids with intellectual disabilities would come to my back yard to play. We had ponies, art stations, kickball games, trampolines,” Shriver said, and he played right along with all 100 kids. His mother and his aunt were not mentors back then; rather, they taught him the value of making a place for fun in our lives. He said, “My mother was brilliant. She didn’t approach difference as a teacher. She said that the best way to experience difference was by having fun, by play.” Shriver continued: “It’s a way, way underemployed fundamental value that a creative means of human learning is fun. You don’t need words; you don’t have to memorize, you don’t have to write, you just have fun. We way, way underemphasize the significance of play.” Through this early exposure to kids with intellectual disabilities he learned they were all just kids who wanted to play. He learned about Down syndrome and autism in the context of swimming or arts and crafts. His mother taught him that we all want others to look at us with fun and imagination. Shriver’s Aunt Rosemary is representative of the larger population of marginalized individuals and is central to his story of self actualization. What are the characteristics of self-actualized people? Self-actualized individuals have realistic perceptions of themselves and the world around them. They are motivated in finding solutions anchored in a sense of personal responsibility and ethics. They are spontaneous in their internal thoughts and outward behavior. Self-actualized individuals move past social expectations. There is a focus on developing their unique and individual potential. They continually appreciate the world and others in wonder and awe. The simplest experiences are a source of pleasure. These are individuals who experience what Maslow defined as “peak experiences,” experiences that inspire, strengthen, renew, and transform. These are the athletes in Shriver’s account that helped him redefine expectations. The underpinnings of the book are reminiscent of social psychologist, Kurt Lewin’s “Force Field Analysis” of the 1940’s, a tool used to list factors or forces for and against change, helping leaders evaluate and manage those forces. Shriver provides us with an outline for change. In one instance Shriver admits that those forces against change sit in our own hearts. He gives the example of presuming that he can do something more to help when he forces the question onto a mother of a son with intellectual disabilities who, in a sense, denies him in what we would evidence as a satisfactory answer: “They have all they need,” she replies. And they do. Shriver reflects on the intimate relationship he observes of this mother who sits next to him kneading out the knots of her son’s tight muscles. It’s this tenderness, this moment of intimacy between mother and son that bridges us to a better understanding of what is important in our own lives and how we really can help others. Since Fully Alive will help to humanize and raise necessary awareness to the challenges of people living with intellectual disabilities and their families, Shriver was asked to reflect on what might be some of the last frontiers for these people who are so close to his heart and to his passionate desire to serve. He said emphatically, “I wish it was the last frontier. It’s not a last frontier, it’s a basic frontier. There’s discrimination in the health care system, education, ignorance in employers and the private sector; there’s bullying, humiliating exclusion.” Shriver stressed that awareness of and a commitment to serving people living with intellectual disabilities “is a human rights and a civil rights movement. It’s a shifting from services to voices to self advocacy. We are defined by voices. Voice is what will teach us about diversity.” He went on to say that, “People with intellectual disabilities are architects of their own experience.” Through Fully Alive, through his work for Special Olympics, and through his meaningful relationships, Shriver invites us to join him. “We have a whole revolution to keep going. We have to elevate difference for a unified generation.” Shriver said that he wanted to write about how to live in the world of difference, in a diverse world, a tolerant world, an open world, a unified generation where we value cherish and elevate difference. In his memoir, he does so with great passion and compassion. We experience his own transformation, and his honestly and vulnerability invite the reader to consider her own transformation. And, the book invites us to join him in this revolution. When asked how Rosemary fit into the overall arch of his book, Shriver explained that he saw Rosemary as the pioneer. “She cleared a path for people like Pearl, Daniel, and Loretta. She came out of the shadows—out of the closet, not as an advocate but came out of the closet as a human being. She is the Rosa Parks of the Intellectual Disability movement; she stayed and didn’t move.” Threaded throughout the memoir are narratives that seek to define the exuberance Shriver feels as a part of giving to the Special Olympics. He narrates instances of when he asked volunteers to explain the feeling that one receives more than one gives. Shriver uses a quote by his son, Sam, to best describe the feeling: “It’s a fun that lasts.” The memoir, which leans on the wisdom of saints such as St. Martin, and poets including Seamus Heaney, is, in itself, a reach to capture the feeling that cannot be described in simple prose. When interviewed, Shriver could best describe the feeling as “not time bound.” When asked what poet may capture this feeling, Mary Oliver’s name and her deep connection to nature came first to his mind. It is likely that Shriver is referring to the feeling one encounters with Oliver’s poems that capture the wonder and mystery experienced in nature. His book, Fully Alive, captures the wonder and mystery Shriver experiences in his service to others. More important, Shriver believes it’s not another book we are after, it’s that we aim to connect kids with their passions in our teaching and service. Shriver referred to time he spent teaching in New Haven. Those experiences with students who face challenges in their environ- ment in many ways are interchangeable with the learning experiences he has had serving Special Olympics. When asked if he had future interests in writing a second book, Shriver said, “I tried to write two books in one and have thought about that but there are a lot of good educational books out there. Some (leaders) are brilliant with curriculum.” More important to Shriver, though, is that we aim to connect kids with their passions. There is a need for safety and connection. “We need to crack kids open in that way. We need to ask them what they want to learn, what they want to do. We have to show them how to manage stress, adversity, problem solve. We have to show them how to serve, ask them to serve.” For Shriver, connections can be made, but we need to help students make them. When asked about how to combat hopelessness, Shriver responded that, “Hopelessness is not knowing what your own hopes are. I see anger, anger all the time, all around us and really, I think this is an expression of hopelessness. We have lost our bearings; we need to look inward first. We have a dream, a passion—we have to help them identify what theirs is.” Education often is imposed, said Shriver. “If they (students) find it internally, they can be more animated to become who and what they can be.” According to Shriver, individuals like Daniel and Loretta, and even his son Sam give us easy lessons that we would post on our refrigerator; sometimes they show up where we would least likely find them said Shriver. Often we look to Shakespeare or other famous figures for wisdom. “What is different about the lessons Daniel and Loretta teach is that they live those lessons; we post lessons on our own refrigerators, but it is much harder to live them.” Shriver’s book is a call to find the purity and goodness in each of us to serve. “Yes,” Shriver said, “that is what the last chapter, Storm the Castle, is about. We all have a mission, a charge, and we need to get in the game and play. Changing the world is like a contact sport. Let’s play!” And yet, “We still have a whole lot of work to do,” Shriver declared. In the not-so-distant future, Shriver envisions that every school in America that has a boys or girls basketball team will have a unified Special Olympics basketball team. He said, “We will teach people everywhere how to play unified; this is our great gift, our value, not just in this country but around the world. We will use the power of play in sports. If you can’t do 500 meters, then we set up a 100 meter race; if you can’t kick with your left foot, we change up the game.” In Fully Alive, Shriver shows by example that sport is the great teacher of human relationships. He said, “It creates a more tolerant, inclusive future, and getting Unified Games into every single school will make for a more tolerant, healthier experience for all children.” Through his sharing about his passion and commitment, his willingness to open his heart, to learn, to be transformed, Shriver will certainly validate the stories of families living with intellectual disabilities and encourage more of us who may have once had our eyes closed, to join him in his invaluable service that will move us more fully to a unified society.•
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Christine Redman-Waldeyer is a poet and Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey. She has published three poetry collections, Frame by Frame, Gravel, and Eve Asks (all with Muse-Pie Press) and has appeared in Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Texas Review, Verse Wisconsin, and others. Christine earned her Doctorate of Letters from Drew University and is a doctoral candidate in Rowan University’s Ed.D program in higher education.
Lynne McEniry, MFA: poet, presenter, mentor, editor, with poems and reviews in 5 AM, The Stillwater Review, Paterson Literary Review, The Lake Rises Anthology, and others. She won Honorable Mention for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. McEniry is a regular guest editor for Adanna Literary Journal for which she edited special issues, including “How Women Grieve” and “Hurricane Sandy: Students Speak Out.” and works at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ.