A lesson from Oseola

For 87 years, Oseola McCarty of Hattiesburg, Mississippi  lived her life in total simplicity and  anonymity.  Today, she is America’s new-found hero. Recently the New York Times paid homage to this wonderful black woman in an editorial, and US President Bill Clinton asked her to be his date at a testimonial dinner at the White House a few weeks ago.

Rich Americans, noted the New York Times editorial, regularly give millions of dollars in endowments to universities of their choice.  Whether inspired by altruism or egoism, their generosity hardly merits any mention in the national media.  But when Oseola McCarty turned over $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for black students, her act electrified an entire nation.

Ms. McCarty had earned the money from washing other people’s clothes for over 60 years.  She had no family, and so from her earnings she took just enough to maintain her frugal lifestyle and  every week turned over the rest to her bank.  Without her realizing it, her savings grew over the years.  At age 87, she decided to retire, and, reminded about the money she had put aside, she figured she needed but a small portion of it to keep her independent during the remaining years of her life.

Not having gone beyond grade school herself, she thought it would give her tremendous fulfillment if her savings could be used by black young people so that they could get the education that was denied her and other black people of her generation.  So one day this humble woman withdrew her money and presented it to the president of the University of Southern Mississippi — a school, which, in her time, had been off-limits to black students.

According to the New York Times, the first beneficiary of the Oseola McCarty fund was a black young woman, who upon learning about the circumstances surrounding her precious scholarship, promptly looked for  her unusual benefactor.  Now she  has practically adopted the old lady as her family.

Yet no one is more surprised than Ms. McCarty at the way the nation has fussed over her.  She isn’t the type of benefactor who would look out for acknowledgment or recognition.  She just felt she did not need the money.  It didn’t occur to her that she could have used it to buy herself a holiday, a place in a comfortable old people’s home, a generous medical insurance, a new set of furniture and maybe several washing machines.  Some people would probably call her an ignorant fool.

She knew exactly how much she needed for the rest of her life, took no more than the minimum necessary, and gave back to the community what she felt she would not need in her lifetime.  In our culture maybe, that is being foolish.  Perhaps if she had listened to her bank, she might have been persuaded to put her money in a time deposit or in bonds or in stocks where it would continue to grow but would be of no use to the community whose future she clearly wanted to be a part of.

But Oseola McCarty obviously has a solid mind and an intelligent heart.  She was aware she could have done better in life if she had had some education, but this lack did not deter her from working hard as a washerwoman.  She was apparently not consciously saving for anything she desired in the future. Hers was an ethics of work and simplicity, not of accumulation and opulence. Despite her meager earnings, she ended up having a lot of money for no other reason than that she lived a very Spartan life, far from the mindless consumerism that is the hallmark of modern America.

When I read about Oseola, I thought of the wealthy and the fortunate ones in our society.  Many of them can claim to be as hardworking as Ms. McCarty, and, in their own eyes, even as generous probably.  Even so, they never stop counting their money.  For them, life has become nothing more than an endless struggle to accumulate the means by which to purchase a comfortable life.

Some manage to taste the beautiful life of their dreams, but seldom find it as fulfilling as the pursuit itself.  Many tragically forget what the accumulating was all for.  They end up buying all kinds of insurance, or using their funds for new investments because it is the only way they could persuade themselves their money is working for them.  They surround themselves with possessions they can neither use nor enjoy.  They have made the mistake of confusing having with being.

At the door of death, they look back at the life they have wasted, and in a last effort at rationalization, they now claim they did it all so that their children could have the life they never enjoyed.  But whyever?  Why deny our children the challenge of the pursuit?

But more importantly, if wealth is something we  cannot take with us to the grave, why take from the store of life more than what we or our family need? And if we should now leave it behind, as everybody must, why not leave the big part  of it for the use of the entire community, so that our children and our children’s children can live secure lives in a society that is founded not on selfishness and mutual distrust, but on caring and social responsibility?


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