Spiritual Hunger Among Well-Fed at Davos

You might wonder if the religious heart surfaces in the midst of the World Economic Forum—a meeting of the world’s … Continued

You might wonder if the religious heart surfaces in the midst of the World Economic Forum—a meeting of the world’s most wealthy and powerful people (is that redundant?). As a representative of Special Olympics, I was invited to the Forum’s annual meeting to be a part of the discussions about how together we can “improve the state of the world.” So I get to line up for coffee with Bill Gates and Queen Rania; get to go to parties with George Soros and the Google guys; get to have discussions with the next President of South Africa and the first Lady of the United Kingdom. They’re really all there.

But most observers don’t think the attendees at Davos really want to do anything other than make more money. One cynic put it bluntly: “The people who come to Davos spend 51 weeks of the year screwing the world, and one week talking about fixing the mess they’ve made.” One might conclude that the divine spirit isn’t what’s foremost on the minds of the fortune-laden in the Swiss mountains during the Forum.

That view is too narrow.

There’s a ton of spiritual hunger in Davos. Granted, those with power are often the most blind to their own spiritual needs, because they’re the most likely to think they can get along without God. But at the same time, because their lives are so filled with distraction and so hell bent (pun intended) on success, they often have the least amount of spiritual satisfaction and therefore the most spiritual hunger. The founder of the Forum, Klaus Schwab, realized this when he created a meeting unlike other business meetings—one dedicated not only to advancing business but also to advancing the idea that successful business leaders are people with spirit.

Call me naïve, but I saw spiritual hunger all over the place in Davos.

I saw it among scientists and corporations working together to fight Malaria—rushing to get new treatments out of their labs and into the hands of mothers holding febrile children.

I saw it when Queen Rania spoke of the value of educating girls in the Arab world—of their need, their potential, their blossoming when given the chance.

I saw it in Mel Young, the founder of the Homeless World Cup, who spoke of how humanity’s losers—the homeless—recover their dignity, break their addictions, and get jobs just by being offered the chance to play, to train and to compete in sport.

I saw it in Coke’s COO Muhtar Kent who spoke of Coke’s commitment to clean water, to reduced carbon usage, and to great causes (like Special Olympics!).

I saw it in George Soros’ commitment to expanding his philanthropy to Africa and the developing world—philanthropy that doesn’t give services away but rather looks to empower citizens to become advocates for themselves, their families, their futures.

And I saw in in Muhammad Yunus’ beautiful stories of lending to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh. At one point early in the history of the Grameen Bank, his colleagues were encountering more and more women who simply didn’t want to borrow. “Talk to our husbands,” they would say, “because we don’t know anything about money.”

Yunus understood that resistance should be expected when tapping into the awesome power of the spirit. He told his staff: “When the women say they can’t understand money or create any business of value, that is history talking, not their spirits. We must resist the tyranny of an oppressive history and help them find their power, their spirits.”

The rest of Yunus’ story is now well known. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for relentlessly believing in the value of even the poorest of the poor, of even women. He did it largely by believing that the patterns of history should not dictate the possibilities of the future.

It’s true that these leaders are not necessarily front page news in Davos. Virtually every news story I read about this year’s World Economic Forum focused on fears of recession. And indeed, those fears were the big story. Between the greed induced collapse of credit markets (many of those responsible were at last year’s meeting) and the free fall of the stock market, people were thinking about their wallets.

But the most attended sessions in Davos are always on how to reduce stress, how to find purpose, how to make a difference. One corporate CEO discussing social engagement put in the form of a plea: “The people in my company are parents, are citizens, are good people.” Put differently, they’re spiritually hungry just like the rest of us! Just because they believe in profit, in efficiency, and in competition, doesn’t’ mean they aren’t in the same search as everyone else. Just like the people in the pews on Sunday, they’re hungry for the divine too.

The challenge of the globalized world is to create new patterns of harmony between business goals and spiritual hunger. Yes, the temptations of greed and indifference will persist in business, just as the temptation toward inefficiency and arrogance often exists among social and religious leaders. But both sectors need to escape the oppressive dichotomies of history and find new common ground.

In my view, that’s the hope that Davos represents, however jaded many observers might be. It’s a hope that many will resist, just like the women who resisted Yunus’ invitation to empowerment. But when I hear the resistance, I’m going to remind myself of Yunus’ reminder: “That’s just history talking.”

I’m hoping that next year’s Forum will include a prayer service led by religious leaders of every tradition—right in the middle of the Forum hall, not down the street in a place of worship. And I’m also hoping to bring some special guests: Special Olympics athletes, homeless champions, destitute women. When they tell their stories, I’m guessing their session will be the best attended of all. They’ll remind everyone there that we are all children of the divine, all powerful beyond description, all overflowing with potential for goodness and love. That’s a lesson every leader is hungry to hear.

There is no reason why making a living and making a life should be different tasks. And there’s no reason why the World Economic Forum—like our daily lives– can’t be about both.

Timothy P. Shriver is the Chairman of Special Olympics, Inc. In that capacity, he serves 2.5 million Special Olympics athletes and their families in more than 160 countries. He’s also a TV and film producer. His credits include co-producing “Amistad” and “The Loretta Claiborne Story.”

Timothy Shriver
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  • Gaby

    “I’m hoping that next year’s Forum will include a prayer service led by religious leaders of every tradition—right in the middle of the Forum hall, not down the street in a place of worship.”If you want to pray, do so in private or at the church. Not everyone is comfortable with religion and I find it oppressive to be forced into such circumstances by “well-meaning” believers such as you. There is a place for everthing, and business meetings are not the place for religion.

  • martha Beck

    As someone who works intimately with many well-known and wealthy clients, I second Shriver’s observation that many of these people have the noblest of intentions. Thank you so much for making this optimistic and (I believe) accurate point to turn our attention away from bitterness and cynicism toward hope and enthusiasm!

  • M Beck

    As someone who coaches numerous well-known and well-to-do individuals, I second Shriver’s observation that their motives are often noble. Thank you for adding this note of hope and enthusiasm to counter the bitterness and cynicism that often dominate the news.

  • Mr Mark

    “I’m hoping that next year’s Forum will include a prayer service led by religious leaders of every tradition.”As long as it comes after the seance and the sacrificing of a still-beating human heart to Tezcatlipoca.If we’re going to look to prayer as a solution to the world’s challenges, then it behooves us to employ all other methods that have proved to be just as real and effective as prayer.

  • artistkvip

    i’m not impressed by the results… these most likely fine people… have actually got 4 thier money if its really being given as agift and i suspect thye could use a refresher definition of a girt… a gift is something that actually leaves your hand… and goes to the hand of another.. if yo think… about giving …and dont … then you… were never willing to give… don’t you would have done so… so don’t pretend itas the fault of the recipiant… a gift comes with no conditions or terms… the recipiant… has the right to squandor a gift if they are foolish enough to do that… it is not a reflection of the giver… if you expect something or place conditions on your “gift” your are instead hiring an enmloyee useually on the cheap to do what you have demanded ..or perhaps worse you are enslaving someone who is completely helpless just because you were blessed by God and would rather be a slave owner than a giver…my experience with high powered people and i have met more than just a few… is they do what they want to do and somtimes fool themselves or get other people to tell them lies about thier conduct… so they can justify it….. where are the no intrest loans to start small businesses.. where arre the handshake agreement that the only thing you owe is to help someone else if you are blessed by success in the way you yourself feel moved to do… have youever heard the term pass it on… that is a gift… in reality maybe they would do more real good by just throwing the money out of planes intsead of funneling through a group of social preditors waiting with thier mouths drooling to expoit and farm the misiery of the helpless and hopeless…4 thier own good ov coarse… i suspect the fine people will turn thier faces and ears away from the truth and go back to thier nice parties where they can pretend and i suspect sometimes actually wish they could do something to help.. spiruality require personal sacrifice and actual deed not toasts and empy wishes… intentions without actions are fantacies at best… the sad truthis most real good gets done by unpaid volenteers not big charity groups or posturing pretenders……please prove me and the suffering world wrong but i’mjust an unsuccessful artist please triple check 4 truth if any

  • ahmed from bahrain

    But you did not see anyone defending the plight of Palestinians or current inhumanity done to the people of Ghaza. It offends the sensibilities of Israelis/Jews. That is a no go area. Besides it might earn you the forehead tattoo of ‘anti-semetic’ Let’s stick to Africa and plight of Arab women.

  • OPS Sharma

    I had sent you my observations on ‘One World, Many Faiths’ pertaining to the Vedantic, universal world-view (and not just a nationalistic one or sectarian one).ThanksOm Prakash Sharma

  • Soja John Thaikattil, Sydney, Australia

    Dear Dr ShriverI can only say, may God bless all your efforts with great success! Yes, we seem to be living in the times when there is a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit worldwide. Thank you for being one of God’s powerful instruments.Soja John Thaikattil

  • Ruth Robertson

    As a Mormon I find your comments hilariously off the mark and wonder how many Mormons you’ve known from around the world?

  • lorraine burns

    as a humanist i can heartily agree with much of what you’ve seen (Davos) and said. There are way too many hungry ghosts out there (to use a Budhist metaphor that i believe is true) -with enormous, rather decisive, power to destroy the civil world …(for good? or evil? – are we the new dinosaurs?) whatever – i love life and regret not one single day of 65.5 years.. thank you for being so honest.

  • Louise Ross

    I thought that TPS’s thoughts on Davos and the hunger as well as the MLKing piece were more interesting than the last one. I am so tired of people arguing over God as theirs. Everyone has his/her own version and I think it’s too personal to keep sniping the way those who wrote in are doing. Many were awfully rude – he’s my brother-in-law and he’s my idea of a SAINT.