Last week a building burnt down. Actually only some of it did. But that bit was important. To some people it was so important that within hours of the fire being brought under control, those people had pledged a billion dollars to restore it.
Referring to Notre Dame as ‘a building’ is a bit like referring to Queen Elizabeth II’s Imperial State Crown as ‘a hat.’ It is a magnificent building that I was lucky enough to visit with my wife and daughter. I have a photo of my three year old daughter lighting a candle for my mother. My daughter is now ten and we watched the fire on the BBC feeling very sad for this amazing cathedral. Later in the day we heard about the incredible sums of money being promised to fix it and then this amazing cathedral, all of a sudden, became ‘just a building!’
You don’t need to be as smart as a fifth grader to know that a billion dollars could fix an awful lot of problems for an awful lot of people. My fifth grader was quick to point this out. I agreed that this charitable outpouring for a building in a rich country would be better focused on addressing the needs of people in countries where even a hundred dollars could be life-changing.
A lot of criticism has been directed at the donors of the money for prioritizing a building over people. I agree with the sentiment behind the criticism but I am not sure that it is entirely fair. We all have our own priorities and interests. Very few of us have hundreds of millions of dollars around to spend on them but we still have them.
Our priorities and interests are derived from our perspective of the world within which we live. We all live in the same world but our perspectives are different and therefore so are our priorities and interests. The donors did not make a choice between the Notre Dame or eradicating malaria by 2040. They simply solved an immediate problem that aligned with their interests and the interests of millions of people with the same world perspective. I think what shocked the world was that it just does not seem fair that while one group gets their building fixed, other groups are homeless, starving, and dying for want of political will or financial support.
The world is not fair. We have been told that since we were young. So we do the best we can with what we have and protect ourselves from other people taking whatever that is. Some of us have the means to help others but those others are more likely to be others like us who share the same world perspective. This is because to empathize with another person, you need to be able to understand their perspective.
I interpret the outcry over the Notre Dame donations as another call for a fairer world. A fair world would meet our needs and the needs of others impartially and without discrimination. For those needs to be met, we need to understand each other’s perspectives. Those perspectives can and must be taught in every school. International schools are in unique and powerful position of independence from which to lay a foundation for a fairer and more compassionate world. That foundation must be built upon an understanding of multiple world perspectives.