Last week, I mentioned covering a story for Small Town Newspaper. The sentence from Pericles that was quoted at that event made such an impression on me, I built today's opinion column around it. Here you go:
Last week, representatives from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank were in Dover to reveal findings from a recent study on hunger in America. During the presentation, Dan Flowers, the CEO of the food bank, quoted from Pericles’ Funeral Oration (460 B.C.), a speech the leader of ancient Athens delivered to mourn fallen soldiers and to promote democracy. The sentence from which Flowers quoted was this: “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.”
Pericles recognized that in a democracy, especially one with an abundance of resources, the well-being of every citizen counts, and those citizens who live in want regardless of reason should not be allowed to starve. He believed that when a community turns its back on its hungry members with an every-man-for-himself attitude, they are not just committing an unfortunate act; they are committing a disgraceful one.
The same is true today as was true in the Golden Age. The United States, known as the wealthiest nation on the planet, is home to an increasing number of hungry people. The number of Americans living at or below poverty level is now between 13 and 14 percent, with one in five children being born into poverty. The number of people relying on food banks for their next meal has increased 46 percent in the last three years largely due to rising unemployment, increased living expenses and decreased wages.
We have a new group of working poor among us, people who were once self-sufficient and who hope to be self-sufficient again as job opportunities eventually improve. We have people with debilitating illnesses who have to decide whether to eat today or to chip away at mounting medical bills. And we have more than 14 million children who need food their parents can’t afford to buy for them.
All of these people need empathy from the rest of us. And they need substantial aid to tide them over until they can find their feet again, aid in the form of money and volunteered time given to local food banks.
Not long ago, there was a popular video circulating on the Internet of a startling nature scene played out in South Africa. A herd of buffalo was leaving a watering hole with a pride of lions crouching behind the brush. The weakest of the herd, a calf, was trailing behind but following to the best of his ability when the lions leapt on him and dragged him into the water. They were gripping him with their claws and teeth and pulling him back onto dry land when a crocodile jumped up from the water and clamped his jaws onto the calf’s back leg.
The calf was being pulled in this struggle for food until the lions prevailed. About to be eaten, the calf called out for help, and the buffalo herd returned to the scene. Any one of them could have been attacked themselves, but they chose to help the weakest among them instead. They surrounded the lions, fought them and chased them away; and throughout the commotion, the little calf managed to get back on his feet and rejoin his herd where he could lick his wounds and recover in safety.
As I listened to the Akron-Canton Foodbank presentation last week, making note of the unsettling statistics of need in my nation and in my own town, I couldn’t help but think of the calf at the watering hole. And I couldn’t help but think that if a herd of buffalo can show empathy for each other and take action accordingly, so shouldn’t human beings be as generous and compassionate.
If those of us who are able will help ease the burden of poverty for the sake of those who struggle under its weight, we’ll be a stronger community for it. If we provide a safe place such as a properly supplied food bank for the financially injured to lick their wounds on their way to recovery, we can replace the disgrace of overlooked need with the honor of compassion.
In case you don't recall the video of the calf being attacked by the lions, here it is: