There seems to be a concerted movement among some to lower national expectations under the guise of compassion and equity. These sentiments often affect educational standards, welfare qualifications, consequences of crime, and various character traits. Of course, we do need to be loving, patient, and understanding, and when needed to provide special help. But that raises the following questions: “How should compassion influence our expectations? And what constitutes true compassion in these circumstances?”
For the answer to these questions there is no better starting point than the scriptures—the ultimate guide for determining correct moral values and responses. In other words, how did the Savior balance compassion and expectations?
You may recall the story of Peter walking on water. As he saw the surging waves, he started to lose faith and began to sink. The Savior extended His hand and said, “O thou of little faith” (Matthew 14:31). One might wonder: “Why did He say that to Peter? Why did he have such high expectations of a mere mortal. After all, how many other men do you know that have walked on water, even for a few steps?” But the Savior was not comparing Peter to other men; He never does that. In truth, He was saying, “O ye of little faith compared to what you can become.”
To each of us the Savior enjoined: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Lest there be any quibbling that this referred to some type of relative perfection, Paul taught that the Church was “For the perfecting of the saints. … unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:12-13). The measuring rod was clear: man was expected to achieve perfection as Christ is perfect. That is the standard for all men and women. That is God’s expectation of us.
And how is that possible? Because we are the literal spirit children of God and thus have His DNA embedded in our souls. And since our identity is as a child of God, our destiny is to become like Him. But our spiritual DNA is not enough to achieve this goal alone. A stack of wood has the potential to give off heat, but that potential is not unleashed until a spark is lit. Likewise our spiritual DNA needs a spark to unleash its full potential, and that spark is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Together, they provide the ingredients for godhood.
Because of our divine potential the Savior never lowers His standards to accommodate our shortcomings; rather He provides the needed resources and encouragement to help us overcome those shortcomings so we can rise to His level of expectation. In addition, He exercises loving patience that gives us time to achieve that divine standard step by step.
On occasion the Lord has given a lesser law, such as the Law of Moses in lieu of the Law of Christ or tithing in lieu of the law of consecration, in order to accommodate human shortcomings, but in all cases these were temporary laws, stepping stones to returning to the higher law that leads to perfection.
The story of the rich young ruler is an example of the Savior’s loving but uncompromising adherence to our pursuit of perfection. The young man asked the Savior what he must do to inherit eternal life. The Savior responded by reminding him of God’s commandments. The young man responded that he had kept the commandments from his youth up. As good as this was, it was not enough. The Savior then said, “One thing thou lackest” (Mark 10:21). He then told him to sell his treasures, give to the poor and come follow Him. But it was more than the rich young ruler was willing to do, and in the process, he strayed from the path to eternal life. Because the Savior loved this young man unconditionally, he knew he would do him and those who were witnessing the interaction no favor in lowering the standards of perfection.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead further teaches the divine principle concerning expectations. The Savior approached the cave where Lazarus had lain for four days. Rather than remove the stone cover Himself, He instructed those nearby to do so. Then in a loud voice he cried out, “Lazarus, come forth,” and the scriptures record that “he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin” (John 11:43-44). At that point Jesus commanded the onlookers to unbind him. One might ask, “Why didn’t Jesus remove the stone with a show of power? Why didn’t Jesus unwrap the revived corpse? Why didn’t he just do a turnkey miracle?” Because He was teaching a divine principle of expectation that was motivated by perfect compassion, namely, that we must do all we can, and when we have reached our limits, when we have asserted all our mental, moral, and spiritual energies, then the powers of heaven will intervene. Man could remove the stone and unwrap the corpse, so he must do it, but only the power of God could call the dead to life.
Fortunately, we have real life examples of heroes who understood the “Lazarus principle” and resisted the temptation to lower expectations under the cover of compassion. Jaime Escalante had a well-paying job at a computer company until he resigned to become a high school teacher. As fate would have it, he was assigned to Garfield High, located in the barrios of East Los Angeles, California. There he would teach basic math.
A movie based on his life shares a scene in which the principal is meeting with teachers and school administrators. The principal reminds them that the school is on probation because of its academic failures. One of the teachers present mentions that the only way to have higher test scores is to move the school out of the slums. In other words, move the school to a place where rich kids live. Another chimes in that you can’t teach logarithms to illiterates. Finally, after a moment of silence, the newest teacher, Jaime Escalante, speaks up, “The students,” he says, “will rise to the level of our expectation.”
One quickly witnesses that Jaime Escalante is no ordinary teacher. One sees hope being planted in the eyes of his students for the first time—maybe they can not only pass math, but even master it.
At one of the subsequent administration meetings, Jaime Escalante announces that he wants to teach calculus the next year. The only way the juniors can prepare for it, however, is to take trigonometry and advanced algebra in summer school. The other teachers and administrators are shocked at such a suggestion. “That’s ridiculous,” says one of them, “Our kids can’t handle calculus.” Then he adds, “There are some teachers in this room who can’t handle calculus.” But Jaime Escalante is not to be discouraged or derailed—he has incredible faith in the potential of these young people and a vision of what they might become. Finally, permission is granted. Upon announcing to his students that they should enroll in summer school, he hears remarks such as, “We will be seniors—it will be our year to slack off.” But somehow these students know deep down that this is their chance, their opportunity to rise to heights never before attained in their lives.
After a difficult summer of sweltering classrooms, Jaime’s faithful students return for their senior year to confront the difficult subject of calculus. Finally, the moment of truth came for these students to take the high school advanced placement test. If they scored a three out of five, they qualified for college credit; if they scored a four, they were well qualified; and if they scored five, they basically scored the equivalent of an A. By way of background, this calculus test is so difficult that only a small percentage of all high school students even attempt it.
With great anxiety, 18 students took the test and then with equally great anxiety waited for the results. To their great delight, all 18 students received college credit. It was miraculous. No other school in Southern California had so many students qualify. But then a problem arose; those who had administered the test thought these students must have cheated. Their scores were substantially higher than those of any other school. Surely, they thought, this would be impossible from such a school as Garfield High where no one expected any student to pass an advanced placement test, let alone 18 students in calculus.
This stigma hung over the students until finally a majority agreed to retake the test—this time with as much supervision as the school district desired. They did so. Anxiously they waited for their test scores. Finally, the scores were given to the principal over the phone—four, five, another five, four, three, four—all 18 students had qualified for college credit. It was a resounding victory for vision and faith in the human spirit. It was a great reminder that the youth in the humblest barrios of East L.A. could rise to the same heights as those in the private and expensive schools of Beverly Hills. Why? Because they all had the same common denominator—they were all children of God with the same access to the Savior’s Atonement and thus the same divine potential.
The movie concludes by showing on the screen the number of students from Garfield High who passed the advanced placement test in subsequent years:
1983 – 31
1984 – 63
1985 – 77
1986 – 78
1987 – 87
In a six-year period a stunning total of 354 students passed the advanced placement test in calculus. How many do you think would have passed without the vision and expectations of Jaime Escalante? What made the difference? It was the vision and expectations of one teacher and the determination of students who made no excuses along the way. Mr. Escalante could have chosen to be a paid baby-sitter, to go with the flow and be satisfied with low expectations, but he loved them too much to do that. And now the key question: “Would he have been more compassionate or less compassionate if he had lowered his expectations to meet their comfort level?” Likewise, are we more compassionate or less compassionate when we lower the expectations of our school children in math and reading and science, or when we expect welfare recipients to put forth no effort on their own, or criminals not to repent and change their ways?
Unfortunately, there exists an equity mentality among some that it is better for everyone to get a C grade then for only some to get A’s and B’s. The quest for equity in results rather than equality in opportunity often draws people to the lowest common denominator. It is a philosophy that promotes mediocrity rather than excellence. It is a deterrent to one’s pursuit of perfection.
One missionary who had been assigned to our mission in Toronto had greatly struggled in school. His native language was English, and he had been called to preach the gospel in Spanish. At the beginning of his mission he approached me several times and asked to be transferred to an English-speaking area. Spanish, he said, was impossible for him. I reminded him that a prophet of God had called him to speak Spanish, but the repeated requests for a transfer still came. One day he and several other missionaries were in the mission office. He started eating one of the cookies from a jar on a table.
I asked him if he knew how to say cookie in Spanish. “No,” he replied. I said “Elder, there is a new rule for you. From this day forward you cannot eat it or wear it until you can say it in Spanish.” One of the nearby Elders remarked, “You are going to have a hungry, naked Elder on your hands.” “No,” I replied, “We are going to have an Elder who learns Spanish.”
He did not become the most fluent Spanish speaker in our mission, but he did learn the language sufficiently to teach many people in Spanish, to baptize in Spanish, and to become the leader of a Spanish district. He went home a new man, learning that his capabilities had far exceeded his initial expectations. But the question lingers: “Would it have been more or less compassionate to have transferred him to an English-speaking area?” In telling this story I realize that in certain cases someone may be inspired to take another approach. Perhaps the underlying principle is this—we should invite the highest level of expectation that will expedite one’s pursuit of perfection without overwhelming them in the process.
Ben Carson’s mother was a single parent who understood this principle. She transformed Ben’s life because she was not content with mediocrity or excuses. Ben said of himself, “I was the worst student in my whole fifth-grade class.” One day Ben took a math test with 30 problems. The student behind him corrected it and handed it back. The teacher, Mrs. Williamson, started calling each student’s name for his or her score. Finally, she got to Ben. Out of embarrassment, he mumbled his score. Mrs. Williamson, thinking he had said “nine,” replied that for Ben to score nine out of 30 was a wonderful improvement. The student behind Ben then yelled out, “Not nine! … He got none … right.” Ben said he wanted to drop through the floor.
At the same time, Ben’s mother, Sonya, faced obstacles of her own. She was one of 24 children, had only a third-grade education, and could not read. She had been married at age 13, was divorced, had two sons, and was raising them in the ghettos of Detroit. Nonetheless, she was fiercely self-reliant and had a firm belief that God would help her and her sons if they did their part.
One day a turning point came in her life and that of her sons. It dawned on her that successful people for whom she cleaned homes had libraries. They read. After work, she went home and turned off the television that Ben and his brother were watching. She said in essence: “You boys are watching too much television. From now on you can watch three programs a week. In your free time, you will go to the library—read two books a week and give me a report.” You can imagine the responses of some “modern-day thinkers”—what an uncompassionate, unloving, tyrant-like mother. Didn’t she realize they were poor, disadvantaged, and therefore her sons shouldn’t be expected to perform well in school? But this was not her vision. She saw beyond their external circumstances. She saw in them their divine potential.
The boys were shocked to hear the news. Ben said he had never read a book in his entire life except when required to do so at school. They protested, they complained, they argued, but it was to no avail. Then Ben reflected, “She laid down the law. I didn’t like the rule, but her determination to see us improve changed the course of my life.”
And what a change it made. By the seventh grade he was at the top of his class. He went on to attend Yale University on a scholarship, then University of Michigan Medical School. Afterwards, at age 33, he became chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical School and a world-renowned surgeon. Later he became a presidential candidate. How was that possible? Largely, because of a mother who, without many of the advantages of life, demonstrated the greatest compassion and love of all—by lovingly demanding high but realistic expectations of her children. It was a reminder of President Spencer W. Kimball’s counsel, “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s souls.”
Years ago, I helped supervise the South Pacific Area of the Church. One assignment took me to the remote areas of Papua New Guinea for a district conference. Hundreds of people came down the river in canoes on a four and half day journey to attend the conference. One woman delivered a baby in one of those canoes about three days into the journey. She and her husband proudly presented it to me at the conference and said, “We have named it Baby Callister.” I met another man at the conference on crutches and asked what happened. He replied, “Oh, a crocodile attacked me, but I fought it off.” I thought, “Wow. All these people had valid reasons why they might not be able to attend the conference; but they transcended the temptation to claim a victim status; they were a people without excuse.”
When there is no expectation or low expectations, people usually sink to that level and in the process achieve less than their full potential. How many of us would strive for Godhood if we didn’t know that God both desired and expected it of us? Most of us would consider it an impossibility. Having high expectations is a manifestation of our belief in the divine worth and potential of every soul. It is a witness of our faith in our divine heritage and Christ’s Atonement to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32).
Hopefully we will not confuse compassion with comfort when comfort restricts our progress. The Lord meant to stretch and test and prove us because He loves us. Hopefully our local and national leaders will mirror that same loving compassion and vision when it comes to education, welfare, crime, and character development, and thus allow each of us to reach our full potential. Then we might become “a more perfect union” as envisioned by our Founding Fathers and more Christlike beings as envisioned by our Father in Heaven.