Vail Symposium offers ideas on moving beyond polarity and conflict
Monday’s program reviews Sargent Shriver’s spiritual approach
- March 16, 6 p.m.: YIMBY Jamboree: Local Housing Solutions in Vail and Eagle County, Vail Interfaith Chapel
- March 22, 6 p.m.: Conversations on Controversial Issues moderated by Clay Jenkinson: Higher Education and the Culture Wars, Vail Interfaith Chapel
- June 1, 6 p.m.: The Bill of Obligations: 10 Habits of Good Citizens, Zoom
“Let’s bring about some peace this evening, shall we?” Incognito, Inc. creator Michael Fosberg said, introducing the Vail Symposium’s Zoom call Monday evening on The Sargent Shriver Effect: Spirit, Politics and Peace-building.
The discussion, moderated by Fosberg, revolved around author Jamie Price’s book, “The Call: The Spiritual Realism of Sargent Shriver.”
Shriver (1915-2011) was a well-known public figure who appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice in the 1960s. He founded the Peace Corps under President John F. Kennedy, tackled the War on Poverty under President Lyndon Johnson, hosted the first round of peace talks to end the Vietnam War as the U.S. Ambassador of France, worked to promote inter-religious peacebuilding in the Middle East, championed the “No First Strike” nuclear arms policy and helped desegregate schools in Chicago.
Price worked closely with Shriver for more than 20 years and founded the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute. His latest book employs dialogue between Shriver and a fictional character to reveal how Shriver infused spiritual values into secular affairs, among other things.
“Sarge was a very astute discerner of spirit, and this is a book about how to do what he did, particularly in the public realm,” Price said, adding that Shriver’s path integrated compassion with service in secular affairs.
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Shriver was a devout Catholic who attended Mass every day. He viewed religion and spirituality as a way to be an openhearted citizen of the world who asked penetrating, curious questions, rather than falling into the polarization of an us and them mentality, Price said.
“The difficulty with polarization is that it sweeps us up and forces us to pick two sides that are pretty stark (in their opposition),” he said. “Sarge believed you could cross boundaries of race, culture, language and class and commit yourself to the dignity and welfare of all, but you needed to do that through the orientation of spirit, the force that operates through us all.”
Fosberg talked about how assumptions and opinions get in the way of open dialogue, and Shriver believed difficulties could be overcome with the help of spirit. Price discussed how barriers pose a threat to us as humans.
“When we’re threatened, we tend to just focus on how to get rid of the threat. We don’t ask what’s really going on with the other: Is the narrative true, and what’s really going on with me? Blame goes to the perceived threat — the person. That’s a human way of going at conflict. What we need to do is be called, brought, strengthened — to stop and be curious (and say): ‘Wow, I’m feeling threatened’ and find out what’s really going on. We need to change our minds and hearts on what they’re taking a stand on. The only way for that to happen is to get curious,” Price said.
He added that Shriver knew that was a difficult task, and believed it “takes help from spirit to transcend their own biases and inability to be curious. … Facing down a person you’re afraid of takes strength, it takes the spirit. If it were easy to be compassionate in the face of difference, to love, to be curious when you were damn sure it was going to hurt you, there’d be a lot more of it. One thing Sarge was clear on was that the flow of the spirit is everywhere, no matter where you are, no matter who you are … there is the possibility of opening up to compassion and curiosity.”
He added that society tends to be in the mess it’s in with the polarization of religion and politics because we don’t have a fluid way of thinking about, and integrating, spiritual experiences and perspectives. Price’s book shows how Shriver thought about spirituality and integrated it into public work.
“His example could help us. I think we need an American hero these days of Sarge’s ilk, someone who is a keen thinker, a problem solver, who has a huge heart and isn’t afraid of differences and wants to be curious in the face of differences, and to do that in a way that doesn’t come across like you’re being a fool or aren’t an evidence-based thinker,” Price said. “He tried to have international vision shift nationally when he was running the War on Poverty (though he didn’t have a chance to finish it). It’s a task that calls for openness and creativity. The Peace Institute is working on that now.”
The metaphor Shriver used to describe his spiritual approach in secular work was “spirit as the wind in your sails.”
“What he really means is we have events that confront us, and we have our thought responses to those events, and we’re either open to compassion and curiosity or we’re not. And what increases our capacity of being open is what our stories are, what our narratives are, what our images are. The Peace Corps did the same thing. For volunteers, it had a set of rules: Go abroad, learn the language, anchor yourselves in the customs, live by their economic standard and ask how you can help — not presume or get involved in politics. The goal was to make friends and build peace. The model was to anchor yourself in the community, open yourself and suffer what it takes to do that: That’s the kind of sail he built for self-transcendence that people had abroad, but it shouldn’t just be abroad,” Price said, adding that this approach should take place in our families, communities and wider society.
He discussed how opening up to curiosity and compassion is difficult “because if you really do that, you’re letting control of the situation. You’re opening yourself to encountering and committing to you don’t know what. He certainly did that when he desegregated schools and ran the Peace Corps. That’s what we all have to do when we feel called to transcend ourselves.”
Sarge and Price both viewed spirit as not taking over the mind, but, rather, lifting people into being like spirit and transcending themselves.
“It’s an experiential reality that lies at the heart of our consciousness,” Price said.
“When Kennedy asked Sarge to run the Peace Corps task force, Sarge immediately wanted to say no, but he also felt “a tug to transcend himself,” Price said. “When you’re leaning into what you really care about, you get a tug or pull toward what’s better, what’s truer for you. He was very astute about that. … (This book) is a model for thinking about it and identifying it.”
The discussion ended with a Q&A session, in which one person asked for practical advice when empathy doesn’t seem to bridge differences on its own.
Fosberg, who wrote “Nobody Wants to Talk About It: Race, Identity and the Difficulties in Forging Meaningful Conversations,” reviewed a few tools he came up with to engage in authentic dialogue, including sharing your story to discover commonalities and relate better, refraining from judging differences, getting comfortable being uncomfortable (because there’s no one way to have a conversation about race and identity), practicing forgiveness and remembering that we can disagree, as long as we’re not disagreeable.
“Be curious about other people’s story; I think that’s how empathy gets actualized,” Price said.
Price summed up the evening by saying that people experience spirit as “the elevation of being our best selves,” something around which Shriver revolved his life.