God is not a good audience

My reflection on Inclusion on day one of the second fifty years of the Special Olympics

Here’s to another 50 years of inclusion. This is what the Special Olympics has brought into our society within the last half a century! During its 50th-anniversary closing celebration, which took place on July 20th in Hyannis, MA, the singer and songwriter Jimmy Demers was twenty-two feet from the shore, in a calm ocean, ready to have a conversation with the Universe. He sang out loud but his voice did not carry as expected and when he related this to a small group over breakfast, someone noted “God is not a good audience”

The day before we had a wonderful evening on a 115-year-old family compound where the inclusion revolution started the moment Eunice and Rosemary Kennedy, sisters to John F. Kennedy, were born. Although many meaningful events started on this land, none impacted so many lives as the Special Olympics movement. It was an evening of powerful women walking us through the fundamentals of inclusion, the importance of listening to each other and giving everyone a fair chance regardless of perceived differences. We heard from Maria Shriver, Vanessa Williams, Erika Ender, Sister Joan Chittester, and the next generation of fierce women represented by the Kennedy, Schwarzenegger, and Shriver cousins. They talked, they laughed, they prayed and they sang with unique voices and points of views.

The lasting impact of inclusion was evident as Special Olympian and actor Eddie Barbanell mesmerized the audience by channeling Shakespeare. Special Olympics global ambassador and athlete Jessica Adkins captivated us, singing a duet with Vanessa Williams. And Loretta Claiborne, one of the best public speakers I ever heard, masterfully orchestrated the evening in partnership with Robin Roberts. At some point in their lives, Eddie, Jessica, and Loretta were labeled as “not able” by a confused society that reacted with exclusion when facing their differences, instead of embracing them with love.

As a world-class speaker, Loretta used few words, simple to grasp, yet incredibly deep. She invited us to listen to all people’s voices and to reach out to them. My recollection is her saying something like “Eunice Shriver was the first person to ever call me a friend and that changed my life — that moment of inclusion is all it takes to change somebody’s life”. Something as simple as inclusion changed her life and empowered her to rise.

Loretta, with her decades of leading by example, shows us the extensive power of inclusion. Rather than fearing our differences, Loretta invited us to embrace our differences with acceptance, with curiosity, with love. Looking up to each one of us, never looking down.

I read Tim Shriver’s book “Fully Alive” so I knew of Loretta’s long journey from being bullied and excluded from our education and healthcare system due to her “differences” to becoming a top medalist in over 310 international events, 4th degree black belt in Karate and earning an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Villanova University and an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Quinnipiac University.

I look up to Loretta. Later, when we had a private conversation, I thanked her and her brother and sisters for the work they do and for changing my life, making me better. She disregarded my comments as if it were excessive flattery and replied, “Do not thank me, thank you for listening to our voice, for giving us a fair chance as that is all we need, and all we ask for.”

We live in very confusing times. Instead of celebrating our differences, we fear them. Technology is connecting us like never before but is also being used to create division with impossible standards of beauty, performance or success driving many toward depression, sadness, anger, exclusion, and pain. My conversation with Loretta and the exposure to the diverse voices this past weekend gave me profound personal meaning to the inclusion oath.

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 #ChooseToInclude.

I promised myself to continue to make Inclusion, alongside empathy and ethical AI, core principles when creating Technology for Public Interest – #Tech4PI.

Early this morning, Jimmy’s voice did not carry as expected. Hours later, when saying goodbye to the Special Olympic athletes, Tim Shriver asked Jimmy to sing. And Jimmy sang an acapella rendition of Let there be peace on earth which was absolutely ethereal.

His voice was perfect because he sang to a beautiful mix of humanity transcending age, gender identity or preferences, religion, ethnicity, intellectual abilities, wealth, or health. Inspiration to be ourselves and to be our best selves happens when we work with and for others.

Think about this for a moment: Have you always been able to do everything you tried to do? Every single time? I dare say not. Each one of us, at any point in our lives, will experience limitations. This does not constitute us as disabled or broken. It does not make us less than others, just like being able to do something does not make us more than others.

It just makes us different; beautifully different.

To the extent that we can include each other and listen to each other’s’ voices, only then will we become the audience that lifts each other up; the audience that is fully alive.

So, it is not whether or not God is a bad audience. It is that we do not need God as an audience. What we need is to eliminate the exclusion that arises from our fears of differences and listen to each other sing.

We must choose to include.