Shriver is the Chairman of Special Olympics, Founder and CEO of UNITE, and co-Creator of the Dignity Index.
A few weeks ago I was in Atlanta for the annual conference of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). On opening night, I was honored to host a chat with Jewel, the multi-platinum, transcendent-voiced, singer-songwriter who’s not only a rock star but a star in teaching social and emotional learning, too. She told stories of her childhood abuse, her homelessness, and her awakening to her own power and ability to change the course of her life. I asked if she believes that our crisis of trust can be transformed. “We don’t need to agree on everything,” she replied. “All we need to do is learn to see each other with an open heart. If we have open hearts, we’ll find a way to solve our problems.”
Jewel was treated to a standing ovation for all the ways she shared her own struggle but equally, her conviction that even in despair, there are skills and strategies that can help us out. Her audience last week was more than 1700 educators from 35 countries who came together to collaborate in the work of supporting the social and emotional development of our children and communities. There were Republicans Democrats; urban and rural leaders; a broad range of ethnicities, religions, and abilities. There were psychologists and hip hop stars; singers and social workers; administrators and school board members; parents and philanthropists; techies and teachers. Their common quality: open hearts! Their mission: to build on the huge consensus in our country that education is about both head and heart. They’re backed by more than 80% of parents who believe in expanding SEL as a way of both addressing mental health challenges and raising test scores. “Loving to learn” is my way of capturing their message. They’re leading a revolution in schools by teaching children and adults how to manage stress, create belonging, discover purpose, and make decisions that optimize learning and life.
All those educators and Jewel were echoing the recent words of Pope Francis: “Don’t soundproof your heart.” I love this message because it reminds me not to give up on the goodness and hopefulness in myself and others, too. And I need that reminder now more than ever. There seems to be bad news everywhere: terrorism and war in the Middle East and Ukraine; contempt and hatred at home; loneliness and anxiety surging among our young; paralysis in our national government; and the list goes on. If we let the news define our lives, we’d all be tempted to give up. Given what we’re hearing, who could blame us?
But the stories in the news aren’t the full story. And while the news you read may be important, it’s also biased in favor of fear. The “outrage industrial complex” that dominates our news feeds doesn’t just sell news—it sells devotional anger, contempt, and conflict. In fact, many of our political and media leaders prefer to be “conflict entrepreneurs” selling contempt because it increases their fame, their fundraising, and their ratings. What we’re seeing from our leaders and on our social feeds isn’t the full story of us; it's a selection of stories designed to scare us, antagonize us against one another, and lead us to be so angry that only more news about the threat can assure us that we’re ready to meet it.
In the face of all that, it's hard to keep an open heart. But it’s worth the effort. It's not that violence and pain don’t exist. Terrorism in the Middle East, ruthless war in Ukraine, senseless violence at home—they’re real and devastating. But the message that there’s no room for open hearts is a distortion of the truth.
Think about all those teachers and educators and all those open hearts. They’re not alone. Over the last three weeks alone, students on college campuses Pennsylvania to Drake University to Spelman to Morehouse to the University of Utah have begun organizing “Students for Dignity” chapters to promote the use of our Dignity Index to make contempt backfire on campuses. I’m guessing you know all about the hatred on campus and the billionaires who are railing against students, but I’m guessing you know very little about the students who are organizing a movement to counter hate not by hating, but by healing. Imagine a groundswell of young people empowered to stop the madness of hate and contempt with the simple tool of treating others with dignity. That groundswell is coming! The news isn’t out there yet, but it’s very hopeful!
And have you followed Utah Governor Spencer Cox’s initiative to invite governors around the country to lead with dignity? Governor Cox has taken the Dignity Pledge and uses the Dignity Index—not to judge others but to challenge himself to do better at reducing contempt in his speech and actions. I bet you've heard all about political leaders calling each other names, being berated in court, and ranting against the other side. But wouldn’t you be interested in the leaders who are creating a counter force to hatred and contempt? Keep an eye on Cox and his fellow governors. You’ll find, the news is good indeed.
I’m not naïve. I know there are great moral and political struggles going on in the world. But I’m also not willing to concede the work of understanding those struggles to those who believe that hatred and contempt are the ways to solve problems. They aren’t. And most people don’t want more contempt and hatred, but we so feel trapped by the message that contempt is everywhere. It isn’t.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said over a half century ago, “hate cannot drive out hate.” That hasn’t changed. As we watch countless people try to counter hatred with more hatred, we’ll take a different path to counter hatred and contempt with dignity and open hearts.
But don’t be discouraged. There are millions of us who are continuing to stand up for our principles while treating others with dignity too. They love Israel and treat Palestinians with dignity too. They love Palestinians and treat Israelis with dignity too. They are strong Democrats and Republicans who treat each other with dignity even when they disagree in principle. They are teachers and families who are teaching the science and the skill of disagreeing without being disagreeable as a way of creating optimal environments for all children to learn. They are Special Olympics athletes and volunteers who work every day to counter the humiliation of stigma with dignity on the playing field and off.
“Don’t soundproof your heart.” The story of hatred and despair isn’t the only version of us. Seeing the dignity in each other always reveals a deeper story, and all it really requires is what Jewel asked us to practice: an open heart.
The stories of the healers and the scholars and the teachers and the athletes and the peacemakers with open hearts are everywhere. Our lives depend on them winning the day. Join them!