15 February 2014

Measuring lives

the full moon setting into the heart of a mobile from my dad. dawn rising

I woke early this morning and watched the full moon sink, red and plump, into the sea at dawn. I lived the first four decades of my life without knowing that at the full moon, the moon rises just as the sun sets and it sets just as the sun rises. Seems like vital information somehow—how did I miss it for all these years?

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.


jcobbsy said...

I didn't realize. My thoughts and prayers are with you. In thinking about impacts, it has been nearly twenty years since I was in your class. And yet just yesterday, walking through my little college town to my comfortable academic gig and unaware of your fight, I began thinking about the East of Eden group discussion we had. I was able to call upon the insights of you and my classmates when thinking about my personal and professional obligations all these years later. So thanks. Joshua.

David McCallum SJ said...

Just so spot on, Jennifer... quality of life, not unrelated in any way to the quantity, but in helpful focus and priority. In the spiritual tradition that most influences me (that of Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits), gratitude is an essential practice that then leads to a feeling of being connected and beloved, and to a growing generosity. That generosity, or in Ignatius' language, "magnanimity," is a kind of great hearted desire to actualize one's self as an act of worship and praise of God. Your reflections about your friend remind me of this...

Nicola Douglas said...

Even in your time of hardship you are inspiring and thoughtful and considering others. I was thinking of you this week and now I know why........you need us all to be thinking of you and wishing you well. Arohanui from our whanau to you and yours. Jennifer xx

Keith Johnston said...

I find these 3 dimensions to be so helpful. Thank you. I would like to suggest a fourth. Other baby boomers might feel most comfortable recalling the Fifth Dimension but that is another story. I want to call my suggested 4th dimension, width, although it could also be thought of as an extension of height. Some folk have an enormous influence on the lives of others from a distance. There are ways you do this Jennifer. You have impact in height and depth and also in this width dimension. You can deeply affect those you do not know through your writing. As a more extreme example there are reclusive writers and dead poets and philosophers having these impacts on our lives and we never know them personally. We could say they have a wide impact that lasts or even grows over time.
The reason I want to call this width relates to an incident that happened at Jennifer's 40th birthday party. I gave a speech, as we do in NZ on big occasions, and I pointed to Jennifer's propensity to want to keep many options open and how this often challenges my more decided approach. I described her world view as "why choose?" Alas, this image was lost on her for much of the speech because what she was hearing of my flat Kiwi accent was "wide shoes" which could be path shaping in its way but not much of a way of life.

Anonymous said...

FRom one of your Ozzie students, Jennifer I wish you well through this "Valley of death" that I call W. Bridges' " Ambiguity " stage. He too was shocked by the reality of the impact of change, particularly, the unexpected pain physically and emotionally on even the most theorically experienced!
Thank you for sharing your experiences so courageously, atrue teacher !

Jimmy said...

Whenever I come to a time for making a difficult choice, my guiding principle, thanks to Jennifer and Keith, will be "wide shoes."