|the full moon setting into the heart of a mobile from my dad. dawn rising|
15 February 2014
This has been a grim week. I’m clawing my way up out of the dark on this lovely day and thought I’d spend some time with you thinking about the various measurements we use to think about our lives.
We say all the time in educational research that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. But still we measure what is easy to measure, and then we believe what was measured was the most important thing. And that has messed with us in schools and in businesses and in every other place we want to ask: How are we doing now? What should we be doing better?
It has been occurring to me that much of what we measure in a life is length. Someone who dies at 30 is a tragedy; someone who dies at 98 is a triumph. The Queen sends you a birthday card if you make it to 100. I’ve been wondering about a more three dimensional way of measuring life—the volume approach.
Length matters. We know this. We do our best to improve this. I don’t smoke. I exercise. I eat well (though it will surprise many readers to know that I had chicken for dinner last night for the first time in something like 15 years). Important pieces of this factor are out of our individual control. You do what you can and hope luck and genes carry you the rest of the way.
Height matters at least as much. For me, height is about the number of lives we touch, the way the world is improved by our presence. There’s no good measure for this—the number of likes on a facebook posting is no proxy for the number of people who are different (hopefully in a good way) because of you. I’m trying to figure out how we can get a better measure of this and keep it more in the front of our minds. One way is to mess with length of course—funerals are places where these stories rise to their full glory (this is unhelpful for the person in the casket though). Retirement parties are great for this too—I wept my way through my father’s retirement party hearing about all the lives he’s changed. Still, I think that comes too late as a helpful measure to guide our days. Some birthdays do this too: On my 25th birthday, my students (high school seniors, maybe some of them reading this now in their mid 30s—remember when 25 was unimaginably old?) snuck into my classroom before school with 90 helium balloons, one for each student I taught. Each ribbon on each balloon had a message from a student. Have I ever been so moved? I still have the cards in a box near my desk. Getting cancer seems to be a decent proxy. I am thinking I might print out all the emails and cards from people who have written to me saying that their lives were made better by me and hanging them from ribbons in my study or my bedroom, in both homage to those students nearly 20 years ago and also to hold my attention more to height than to length. Height surely matters more even though it’s harder to measure.
Depth matters too. I think this is about the power of the emotions we allow ourselves to feel, the measure of our love for others, the unbridled sense of awe at the sunset, the wholeness of our compassion when meeting with another human being in pain (or when looking with grace at our own pain and failures). On this measure, living in New Zealand is a bonus because I am so often swept away by the power of the landscape. Loving so broadly is a bonus because I am so often swept away by the depths of my love for my friends and family and clients around the world. Even my perhaps over-active negative emotion meter (last night Naomi and Melissa discussed whether I am totally over dramatic in my negative emotions) is a bonus (if one were to believe them that I am) because I get to experience emotions in surround sound often—the dark emotions of the cello along with the floating delights of the flute.
I had coffee yesterday with a friend whose cancer makes mine look like a mosquito bite. Her life, measured in length, is on the tragic scale. She is surrounded by a landscape of snow-capped mountains of loss. But her life measured in volume is not tragic in any way; in fact, it far outstrips the volume of most people who live long but ordinary lives. She has helped make the world better for thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of people through her work in aid and development NGOs. She has loved deeply and well and is adored and respected by those who are fortunate enough to know her. And her eyes shine when she talks about the tuis and the morporks in the bush, about doing homework with her kids, about watching the waves come and go. She has mothered her children so well that she will live through them and carry on into generations she will not see. She will live through so many of us as a model we can live into, as a person who loved well and made the world better for others. I want to hold her life—and mine, and yours—in their fullest, three or more dimensions of bigness. And I want to remember even in my darkest days what they teach anxious teenage boys in health ed: size matters, but it’s not the most important thing.