Repeatedly, scientific studies have proven that humans exhibit empathy from the start. Infants tend to cry more when they hear others crying, for instance.
Unfortunately, self-interest and a sense of greed sometimes overtake that initial empathetic impulse, leaving us with an ongoing societal struggle between people who wish to help others and those who believe it’s more important to preserve their own possessions, wealth and family well-being.
A highly successful high school classmate of mine who today is a respected ophthalmologist has shared his skills and given sacrificially of himself over the course of his career. In 2015, Dr. Steven Anderson was named the Mankato Sertoma Club’s volunteer of the year for his multiple medical mission trips, as well as his founding of Global Eye Mission. Steve even relocated his family of five to Indonesia for five years to serve a country desperately in need of ophthalmological skills.
Certainly it would have been far easier for him to remain in his comfortable Minnesota medical practice, raking in big bucks and relaxing in his air-conditioned home on weekends than it was to learn Indonesian and medically minister to people many among us would rather ignore. But Steve’s rare blend of skill, conscience, intelligence and service drove him to think beyond his own professional and financial advancement.
I was similarly impressed and humbled to read in our local paper that the 1,240 students at Prairie Elementary–many of them the children of immigrants, or from homes whose financial profiles qualify them for free or reduced-priced school lunches–collectively raised $7,230.47 in a recent Pennies for Patients fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They literally brought in spare pennies, dimes, nickels and quarters (an average of $5.83 per kid) because they wanted to help other people who are suffering.
Immediately the Biblical parable of the widow and her offering of two coins came to mind. “He [Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them, for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on,” reads Luke 21:1-4, in the New Standard Revised version of the Bible.
Well, well. Much has been written over time about what this episode really means. Are we to emulate the widow and give of our financial resources sacrificially? Is it wrong of the church–or of Caesar, if you will–to demand so much of someone who has so little? Or is this all in reference to another Bible passage (Matthew 19:23) that asserts it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven?
No, I’m not a minister, Biblical scholar or philosopher by trade; I’m merely a citizen who was raised to have a conscience, an awareness of others’ needs and a sense of obligation for the greater public good.
Currently our school district is in the midst of a campaign for a bond, seeking $68.5 million that will be used to build a new high school and renovate existing buildings to accommodate our growing student population. It’s not debatable that our district today has the smallest amount of square footage per student of any other school in Minnesota’s Big South Conference–and even with the new facility, we would rise only one rung on that ladder. Is it really “vanity” or “wasteful” for a school district to take a small step toward simply getting up to speed with its educational peers?
Nevertheless, this proposal has been met with ridicule and doubt from some parties. Questions have floated–or been pointedly asked by those backing a hostile, non-resident PR guy with a history of being hired to oppose (in a highly divisive manner) public school referenda in various communities–for months about the need for a new school, the amount of the bond, the integrity of the school board members and superintendent, the cost to the agricultural community in particular and why certain local industries aren’t ponying up first.
Maybe it comes down to whether a person perceives that supporting public education with a relatively small portion of one’s tax dollars is a burden, a responsibility or even a privilege. On the frequent occasions I am in our schools, I see potential, promise, personality and a desire to learn in the eyes of the students, whether they are the children of recent immigrants or the great-great-great grandchildren of immigrants. I see teachers busting their buns to assist these students on a daily basis, and custodians who are striving to keep the buildings clean and in working order, and administrators who are doing the best they can with resources that are not always abundant or ideal.
When my husband and I were contemplating a move to this town 23 years ago, we had an infant son. Did we consider the relative strength and health of this school district? Absolutely. Does this community need to continue attracting young professionals, such as doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants, engineers, teachers, pharmacists, lawyers, scientists–and veterinarians, to work with the animals that are such a vital part of this region’s agricultural economy? That answer should be self-evident. Do you think for a second they, too, won’t weigh the existing merits of this school district for their children or future children? Educated people have choices, and, desiring a quality educational experience for their own offspring, they may understandably choose not to locate here if a community is perceived as lagging behind the curve in terms of educating its young people, and the value the area places on that critical task.
Whether you will truly be financially strapped if this referendum passes is impossible for me to say. I don’t know what is in your pocketbook or bank account, nor do I know what is in your heart.
Nevertheless, I challenge you to examine your own heart and finances, and to be sure the choice you are making is for the right reasons.
Remembering the widow, and the students emptying their pockets of pennies, and my amazing classmate Steve who has given the gift of restored vision to people who could never afford to pay him, I’m choosing empathy and a resounding “yes” vote.