I would always remember visiting my mother’s grandparents after church. I never really enjoyed going there because it was far away and there was nothing to do at their small apartment. Most of time when we visited, my 할아버지 (grandfather) would give me and my brother a piece of candy hoping this would melt away our concerns that we would not have much to do during the next few hours. They would be watching a Korean TV channel but I would always show up and turn it to a sports game or show in English that I preferred watching.
I never fully realized how difficult his life was at the time. My grandmother had suffered a stroke and he took it upon himself to take care of her. The right side of her body was of little use so every daily task was made infinitely harder. She couldn’t cut her own food, so everything needed to cut into bite-sized chunks. She could not move well on her own, so he would always help her use an exercise bike for 10 minutes just to get her blood moving. Whenever she needed a helping hand, she would cry out, “아버지, 아버지 (father, father). Most of the time I saw them together he would sit next to her on her wheelchair and grasp her gnarled hand as they sat silently and peacefully together. My grandfather didn’t ever seem like his life was difficult or that he was struggling to get by each day. Without complaint, he got up each morning to take care of the person he loved so dearly.
My grandfather passed away around this time in the summer. He suffered a stroke and passed away quickly. It was a tough time for our family, especially my grandmother. Each night, she would cry out 아버지, 아버지 (father, father) only to realize he couldn’t be there anymore for her. I started learning that the beauty in their relationship was unseen and ineffable. I can’t seem to grasp that right now, but perhaps love can show me what better really is. My grandfather’s love showed me the importance of commitment and sacrifice.
I am not sure what commitment is, I am not even sure if I could ever make commitment. I tell myself that I will commit to studying hard during law school, which of course means writing garrulous and personal blog posts. I live in a culture that reminds me that there are always choices, in fact “better” choices. This is antithetical to the idea that I need to stay grounded, that “better” is not always better. I am not sure in my own life I can see this, but when I watched my grandfather I know that even when beauty fades, that charm is fleeting, that more things doesn’t equal more happiness. My mom would always tell me that he would always call my grandmother his “princess” whenever they did things together, whether he would wheel her outside to enjoy a nice sunny day or eat together the simple foods that he had made or bought.
My grandfather a simple man, taught me much about faith.
My faith tells me that in order for me to live, I need to “lay my life down for others”, that I need to “die to myself”. This paradox is not the way I view life. My needs are of first and fundamental importance to me. What I really need is to learn a thing or two about sacrifice.
My grandfather’s devotion has taught me much about sacrifice. His life was never his own, but he lived in service to my grandmother and showed me he could even give life through his dedication. They would pray together before each meal to a Father they believed held a deeper promise for them. Never once, did I see this man complain about the fact that his handicapped wife was a burden or chore, he loved her too deeply to even let such thoughts develop. Some people say he was too nice, whether it was his willingness to pay for all of his friends he knew whenever he took the bus or whether he would smile even during the toughest of times.
This sort of positive thinking extended and showed me a different aspect of faith: a hope for redemption. Whenever he would bring my grandmother to exercise and she said she didn’t want to do it, he would always find a way to coax her into exercising, telling her “you’re going to get better”. Everyday he seemed convinced she would be able to walk. Any doctor could tell him this would not be possible, but of course why would anybody dare say otherwise? I might dare say he was thinking of redemption far greater than just that current situation.
There’s a promise of redemption that I have as well. That when I have days where I cry out, “Father, Father”, that I know even though my insecurities remind me of my greatest issues and failures, my faith tells me I am deeply cared for. I go through life wondering how I can go through the next day, I am reminded of a Father that tells me He is by my side, telling me to fight on. I see a picture where even though my body will soon fall apart and breakdown, the resurrection tells me, “things will get better”, that I will be able to walk again.
Perhaps my goal shouldn’t always be to seek out the “better” choices. No, “better” isn’t better. Better is love. Not the asinine and sappy love of the movies, young ones frolicking about with not a single worry. My grandfather showed me that love is white-haired and wrinkly, grasping a gnarled hand damaged by a stroke; a quiet and lasting commitment that beats out my fleeting thoughts on what is true love.
I am watching this video:
My two readers have told me that I should really write about this in my typical sarcastic banter, telling me I should write a post and really rail into these guys and the producers for making such an asinine show. I suppose I could rant here and talk about how idiotic these guys are, how they need to get lives and how reality TV is the most self-aggrandizing form of entertainment. There might be some validity to that, but something tells me that is too easy.
For instance, I never understood why so many of my upper-middle class Asians needed to imitate every aspect of “ghetto culture” when they themselves never lived in anything resembling an inner-city. I despise the kid that needs to drop an F-bomb to show he’s “hardcore”. 99% of high school smokers seem like people who don’t have a backbone and just want to do what seems cool and edgy. I find it irritating that some kid who lives in upper-middle class suburbia will actually tell you, “let’s take this outside so I can kick your ass”.
But before I continue, I think I also need to realize that perhaps there is something more insidious brewing in my own heart. People watch these shows, not for the noble lessons they learn or the meaningful themes they can extract but for other reasons. One big thought that I think pervades most of the people watching this show is:
I’m not like them, I am not a loser.
When we watch these shows, we undoubtedly mock whoever is on it. Thank God I am not like that douchebag, with his popcorn muscles and fake tan. Or thank God I am not like that girl who is such a skank and attention-whore. This reality TV only attracts those who are so insecure they need the attention of a TV show to remind them of their self-worth. In essence, a show like this reassures us of our own self-worth. What makes us so special? Maybe nothing, but by comparing ourselves to these clown, perhaps we can tell subconsciously remind ourselves we are at least better than some of them. But I am not even sure that’s true.
I see a bunch of kids who are desperate for attention, even its notoriety of the “Snooki” type. We all want to be loved in some way, damn it if it means making ourselves look like fools. Of course, these reality TV show kids are more blatant and more viscerally disturbing but at the heart of it, what makes them any different from those who choose more refined paths?
This leads to my second point when we say “I know I am not a loser”. I hate to speak for others here (or perhaps I do too much of it), but I understand that my own life is an up and down battle with insecurity. I get irritated when people don’t fully recognize my accomplishments, I get annoyed when I say something and nobody listens, I get depressed when people tell me I am not good enough at something. In my mind, the most important reality TV show is me and I hope that everybody likes what they are watching.
I am not so sure what to say about these kids. I don’t have a bunch of tattoos and earrings. I rarely find myself partying late at night. Yet, at the heart of a show like that, I see a deeper reflection of self on the screen. I don’t need to act like a buffoon daily to realize maybe in many ways, I just don’t want anyone to think I am loser. So something tells me to do better. Inadequacy can be solved if I go to a better school, get a better job, get better friends, get more friends etc. Sure its not acting like a clown on TV, but attention and approval is what I really desire. In my own ways I lack a backbone, daily making decisions based solely on the perception of others. Sounds kind of depressing right?
Let me throw in a different reality TV story here. When we look at the Susan Boyle story, how awesome was it to see this frumpy, quirky and not so sexy woman astound all of us with her beautiful voice. I don’t need to go too deep to capture the joy of the video. Take a look at the video again and watch her reaction as each judge affirms her selection. She can’t believe it! Piers? Amanda? Simon! They all tell her in their own ways that she was indeed special.
We relate to this underdog story, because we see a bit of Susan Boyle in ourselves. There is definitely something unsexy about all of us, something that makes us far from being the belle of the ball or the master of the universe. As a Christian I know this isn’t the end either. You see perhaps a surly member of the audience could have stood up and told Susan that she sucked at singing and it would have made no difference. She had found the “right” source of approval. Who cares what somebody said, the authorities of the competition had already spoken.
As a Christian, I sometimes forget the “right” source of approval in my life; the most important Guy is watching the reality TV show of me. I know I don’t react the way Susan did when the judges gave their remarks; I still fidget at even the idea that someone knows that I am a vast collection of disappointment and failure. This is my “underdog” story. I know deep inside, I am nothing special, nothing sexy, in fact probably somebody undeserving of anything more than this life I have. The cross tells me that God knows this. The cross tells me of how far off I really am. Yet it also tells me not as an underdog no more, but of somebody He approves, somebody He affirms. I need not worry so much about all of my insecurities; something tells me to remind myself the Authority has already spoken for me.
My latest post got some interesting discussion, and the latest article by David Brooks is spot on about our own inflated sense of self.
Per David Brooks:
The narcissistic person is marked by a grandiose self-image, a constant need for admiration, and a general lack of empathy for others. He is the keeper of a sacred flame, which is the flame he holds to celebrate himself………His self-love is his most precious possession. It is the holy center of all that is sacred and right. He is hypersensitive about anybody who might splatter or disregard his greatness. If someone treats him slightingly, he perceives that as a deliberate and heinous attack. If someone threatens his reputation, he regards this as an act of blasphemy. He feels justified in punishing the attacker for this moral outrage.
Hrmm, I wonder who that narcissist is? The title says Mel Gibson, but wait a second, he continues….
In their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite data to suggest that at least since the 1970s, we have suffered from national self-esteem inflation. They cite my favorite piece of sociological data: In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.
But, Carl Trueman decides to lay the hammer down. He does an amazing job, discussing the human infatuation with self. This is a great little essay on how many Christians, have this very issue.
The problem today is that too many have the idea that God’s primary plan is for them, and the church is secondary, the instrument to the realization of their individual significance. They may not even realize they think that way but, like those involuntary `tells’ at a poker game, so certain unconscious spiritual behaviours give the game away.
I suppose my tell is quite obvious, I write a blog. Not so sure how much more self-important I think I could get. =) I discussed this before regarding relationships and marriage in a wider context, Trueman makes a similar point about church commitment. The narrative is similar though, “Why should I continue my commitment to X church, Y person, when they aren’t meeting my standards?” Roughly translated, “I think I am more special than X or Y and thus am deserving of something better/more significant.”
Christians themselves seem to have similar issues in this regard.
The West worships the individual; from the cradle to the grave it tells us all how special and unique each of us is, how vital we are to everything, how there is a prize out there just for us. Well, the world turned for thousands of years before any of us showed up; it will continue turning long after we’ve gone, short of the parousia; and even if you, me, or the Christian next door are tonight hit by an asteroid, kidnapped by aliens, or sucked down the bathroom plughole, very little will actually change; even our loved ones will somehow find a way to carry on without us. We really are not that important. So let’s drop the pious prayers which translate roughly as `Lord, how can a special guy/gal like myself help you out some?’ and pray rather that the Lord will grow his kingdom despite our continual screw ups, that he will keep us from knocking over the furniture, and that, when all is said and done, somehow, by God’s grace, we will finish well despite our best efforts to the contrary.
Perhaps this is a huge reason why authors like Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel succeed. What gospel is better than a gospel that tells you “Your best life is now!” or God’s purpose is grand for you here on earth. It’s funny because this sort of thinking is not just pervasive in the West, but has found a niche in Korean Christian communities as well. Take the parable about the talents. In my youth I have heard this sermon countless times about why I should become an Ivy League graduate/doctor/rich etc. Yet, the issue isn’t necessarily now that we’ve been misusing our talents. I think its everyone thinks they have 10 talents that God needs us to share. The weight of these expectations can be humbling to all and ultimately unsatisfying. The emphasis on our own work is the antithesis of the gospel.
I think this can be a major turn-0ff to non-believers as well. Some of the modern, evangelical identity has been rooted on the American sense of manifest destiny. While Christians and finance guys have often found themselves is a convenient relationship, its a perilous one as well. Listening to the talk radio or watching Fox News can lead one to think that a Christian’s main responsibility is to have a “Protestant work ethic” and defend an unalienable right against taxation. While I certainly do support the basis behind these ideas, I wonder why they have become the crux of even some purportedly Christian commentators.
Take this article on the housing crisis:
In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home,’ or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home,’” he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”
Lin finds the message at prosperity churches to be quintessentially American. “They are taught they can do absolutely anything, and it’s God’s will. They become part of the elect, the chosen. They get swept up in the manifest destiny, this idea that God has lifted Americans above everyone else.”
It all really boils down to one thing: idolatry. OK sure, we aren’t making golden calves and worshiping anytime soon. Its a bit more dangerous actually. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” In fact, its been changed and found convenient. Take God and fit Him in a box that matches perfectly with our worldview. I read the Bible and think maybe God wants me to be like Daniel, an impressive leader in a secular world, or perhaps Joseph of Arimathea, a slightly more esoteric figure, but nonetheless a rich one. Cha-Ching! Perhaps, a sexy story of redemption like Peter, but only if I get to be one of the greatest leaders in church history!
Or I could acknowledge why God called for children to come to Him, because of an inherent recognition of helplessness that each of them had in a world much greater than they could ever imagine. It should be clear if I believe in an all-powerful God, whatever significance I think I hold with my status/money/education etc. is probably not at all that significant.
Who knows what my “destiny” holds? But the first thing I need to realize is often when I put God in a box and worship it, all I am really looking at is a glorified mirror.
This might be a strange title for most of you to read. I can imagine some of you might be turned off already and I could definitely understand how you could feel this way. This is not an apologetic piece, meaning I am not defending my faith with what I write, it’s just a deeper glimpse into what I think about my faith. Thus I hope no one reads this as some sort of proof about why non-believers should believe, because that is impossible. Whatever I write I doubt will convince anyone to change their worldview. At the same time, the success of writers like Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawkins etc. and their critiques on faith are largely based on the assumption that faith is a totally irrational exercise. I beg to differ.
Most of my popular posts have involved pictures, videos or charts of some sort, (which I think says something about my writing) so I’ll be smart and start with one of my own. (another side note: one thing I learned in banking is the skill of charting tautology when you don’t have something profound to say)
Some of you might know what this is and wonder where I am going with this. Before I get too wonkish here and bore you to death, this chart is simply an imperfect but useful tool in describing human preferences. There are a few assumptions with this chart.
- We like stuff: Two goods X and Y measured in terms of quantity (in real life our choices are immeasurable, but for now lets work with what we have.)
I could call X an Y corn and wheat like traditional economists do or perhaps even something zany like McNuggets and Frosties. In this case, I am going to stick with Money and Fame. X is money; as you move more to the right this represents more money that you have. Y is fame; as you move more and more “north” this represents a person getting more famous.
- Indifference: Each point on a curve represents a set of goods that one would be indifferent to possessing. (hence the name)
Each curved line represents a point where our “utility” would be the same; each curve shows if you take a little money away (X) you’ll only be just as satisfied if you add a little bit more fame (Y)
- More is better: I3 is preferred to I2 which is preferred to I1 (Draw a line from the origin to the top right, following this line means you are increasing your “utility”)
If we have a fixed amount of money and fame that extra buck or extra TV spot will always give us more utility.
- Convex: Curves are curved outward (as you start running lower on Good X, it takes an increasing amount of Good Y to leave you indifferent)
The loss of utility in losing a significant amount of money can only be replaced by a larger sum of fame. Perhaps a person goes from a 7 figure job to a 5-6 figure job. This happens all the time, some rich dude decides he’ll become Senator or President.
- Differing Preferences: We don’t all have to want the same things, thus each graph is a representation of an individual’s wants.
Some of us prefer money while other of us prefer fame, graphs can demonstrate individual preferences accordingly. A person who cares only about money might have his indifference curves lean towards the right and vice-versa.
- Insatiability: We can never reach a bliss point
WE ALWAYS WANT MORE POWER AND FAME, NO MATTER HOW MUCH WE HAVE.
As an econ guy (a rather mediocre B student), I think this model speaks well of our human nature: man, the animal with an inclination to “maximize his utility”. He faces a tough world where his resources are limited but his desires are infinite. Some people say this model stinks; as it does a poor job of reflecting the actual world. My problem is not that, I am more concerned with how we apply this model as well as how we use it to address the dilemma: infinite desire but limited resources.
The problem is the “limited resources”. The answer: Let’s crank out more goods, better goods, faster goods, cheaper goods etc. and eventually we will find ourselves satisfied. Not that material possessions are the only things we could talk about here. Maybe we think about a prettier girl, a smarter guy, or a career that makes us feel worthy. We better ourselves in every manageable way, life will undoubtedly improve. But does it?
For one, I think economists can “overrate” the idea of utility, or at least conflate it with the notion of satisfaction. Individualists tend to fall in this boat. As long as we keep cranking out the goods (making more of them, making them cheaper, making them better) we will be in a better place than we were before. They say, let’s raise living standards for greater satisfaction.
This idea has its merits; most of us don’t want to return to the arduous 100 hour weeks with no one to thank us working with an ass that refuses to listen to anything you say. If you banking guys think I am talking about you: I actually meant try waking up at 5 AM in the morning in order to toil and plow with a stubborn donkey that refuses to carry any of your burdens. You screw up in banking, you get a “small” (meaning, still more than 99% of society) bonus. You screw up on your personal harvest, you, your wife and your kids probably suffer from malnutrition and possibly die. Shooting oxen while playing the Oregon trail was fun but nobody wants to literally live out those moments. Nonetheless, why do most people speak of work as if it were similar to navigating the Oregon trail??
In one way, we could see how the “standard of living” criteria is important, but it’s certainly not sufficient. For instance, I bring up banking not only to make a bad joke but also to demonstrate the idea that our “maximizing utility” is overrated. While we can certainly say many investment bankers are closer to the top right in terms of “utility”, its pretty clear having worked in the industry, coupled with all the comments saying how people hated their jobs, that perhaps this was by no means a path towards satisfaction. I would argue this applies analogously to other measures of worldly success.
“A just peace includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” – Barack Obama at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
I agree wholeheartedly with his contention that this is what the world needs. Unfortunately, we go back to the issue of human insatiability. While Obama’s point is fair, that a certain standard of living can bring about an increased amount of happiness. I am not going to pretend worldly circumstances are insignificant; I am grateful I can prattle on and write this convoluted piece because of my material wealth. (or perhaps that of my parents) Regardless, when Obama stresses, “freedom from want”, I think he’s stretching the bounds of what is possible by mere economic means.
What’s the problem? It’s the “insatiable desires”. Let’s live a life that acknowledges these circumstance and curtails our consumption, whether it’d be through governmental intervention or through some sort of self-withholding life philosophy. I am sure most of you would agree that this point has its merits. Tempering our desires and wants is a good thing and is something that is sorely missing in this consumer-based culture. Unfortunately, I think all we are really doing here is attacking the symptoms of the real problem. Merely forcing ourselves to consume less does little to address this issue of insatiability. We acknowledge the tendency but don’t attack the root cause.
Top-Dog Syndrome and a thought exercise
There’s a bunch of studies that show our human tendency to value relative success over absolute success. To put it in simpler terms:
If you could make $100,000 while everyone around you made $80,000 a year, it’d be a bit cooler especially since you knew you made a little bit more than the next guy.
|Objectively Wealthier but…||$110,000||$120,000|
Now, what if I asked you if you could make $110,000 but everyone around you made $120,000. Objectively, you make more in this second scenario, yet most would choose the first scenario. It’s not so much how objectively good we are, but whether we are better than others. It’s strange because that last scenario is a tough one to swallow. Even if you think that you are one of those that would take the second scenario, there is something in us that tells us we need to be Top Dog in something. Our penchant for certain brands is indicative not just of our obsession with quality but also of our inclination towards goods that demonstrate where we sit on the totem pole. Likewise, we are all familiar with athletes/celebrities who can’t seem to let go of their past glories.
The Great One
I actually don’t have a problem with our human condition of insatiability. At first glance, it may appear to be one of our weakest traits, a voracious appetite. In this existential dilemma called life, where we all question our place in this world and our eventual legacies, the human condition put tons of weight on accomplishment, especially if it is something we do better than someone else. I will argue most of us will objectively do something that is quite unspectacular. We all want to be the Great one, yet inevitably our failings catch up with us, so we instead proximate our worth by comparison.
You might even find some Christians who answer that this insatiability is a flaw that needs to be fixed. They are correct in one aspect of thinking, but I think they are selling our goals a little bit too short. I will take a C.S. Lewis stance on this and say: Perhaps there are things in this world that do not completely satisfy us; yet maybe this is a clue that tells us there is something that does. Insatiable desires can be met by something, only if that something is infinite.
You see, it is not necessarily our appetite, it’s the way we are pursuing things that is so flawed. When we are hungry its not like we turn to the Bible to meet our caloric-needs. Yet when we are spiritually starved we seem to focus on the physical ways we can address this issue. I suppose this is where I have the biggest issue with these economic models or even Hitchens/Dawkins. The first acknowledges our desires but then remains agnostic as to how we solve our insatiable desire. Instead it offers up a model that demonstrates our inability to reach that point. The second regards any sort of spiritual fulfillment as poppycock, offering rationality as the escape. Unfortunately, this leave us to acknowledge a deep existential dilemma: We all die soon? What’s the point?
Thus I find the Christian narrative the most relevant and fitting.
The modern atheists are correct in some respects, in that Christians probably need to think through their faith a little bit more. But a man-centered philosophy still reminds me of what I can’t accomplish, what I don’t know and death that I cannot overcome. I think that is also the point.
Christ turns this framework upside-down and inside-out. The message of the cross is simple; one that tells me I am incapable of doing good work on my own. It tells me my heart is restless and weary, and acknowledges a broken world tainted by imperfection.
You should probably ask, “Well, how is this supposed to change me? What does this have to do with anything?” Insatiable desires are problematic insofar as our inability to find anything to satisfy our own craving. One of the biggest problems of this economic model is that it is one based on consumption. In this advertising day and age where everything is geared towards “What can you do for me”, we carry this attitude in everything that we do. Products are designed to fill certain voids or insecurities in our lives, but are insubstantial in leaving any sort of permanent mark. Relationships sour easily because they become based on the question of, “What are the things that he/she can provide me?” When inevitably a person fails at one of these standards it becomes all the more simple to move on, regardless of the hurt or consequences from the lack of commitment.
Christ gives us a new model. The cross is not just an answer to our void and to our sin, it also gives us a new way of looking how we should live. We are used to the idea of fulfilling our own needs and our own desires, telling ourselves, “If I only had that lover, that car or that home this deep, existential despair will disappear.” Instead we begin to understand what it means to “take up the cross daily”. This new model show us one of our biggest problems is our own love of self. Our nature and instincts fight against what God tells us we should be: outwardly focused in our lives. Yet the message is not merely one of self-flagellating asceticism.
When we see that God tells us our own accomplishments don’t matter according to his grace, we don’t have that infinite ladder to climb on our own. You say faith is irrelevant and ignores everyday issues, but I beg to differ. Christ tackles this consumption problem head-on, by telling us the things of this world can’t satisfy us, but that He can. When we read, “What can man profit, if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul”, this issue is acknowledged. He becomes the infinite resource. God tells us he did all the work, we need to trust in him to carry this work in our own lives. Don’t fall into existential despair. We were designed to be perfectly satisfied; it starts when we realize we can never be the Great One.
Its not my term, I plucked it from Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale Law, who wrote about it in a book called God’s Name in Vain. This post is piggybacking off a great idea of his, so props to him.
He writes about it here:
This ideology, which we might call measurism, has a single, very simple dictum: That which can be measured is of greater importance than that which cannot.
I like standardized tests. I find the cold hard number it spits out and the percentile ranking it assigns as a great way to tell me how cool I am.You get X number on the SAT/GMAT/LSAT/MCAT/Firefighter’s Aptitude Test/Miller’s Analogy Test. The question always seems to be: Where do I stand on the totem pole? ST’s give us a cold hard answer, Yes! this affirms I am smarter than Y percentage of people.
EXCEPT….not really. What does this score really tell you? I would tell you that it tells you that this person can do well on this type of test. If a school wants to use this score, it up to them I suppose. But, there’s all kinds of craziness about testing nowadays. Some parents whose kids do really well on them will beam about how “bright” or “gifted” their kids are (which is probably not the entire truth), while a few parents of kids who don’t do well will inform us of some inadequacy of the test to measure the “total package”. Teacher’s unions seem to hate the word test, because they categorically deny its ability to measure something important. (I would say we should use it, just not overuse it, a tricky task indeed) Carter writes aptly:
A speedometer, in the absence of an external judgment (such as a speed limit), provides no information about right and wrong.
He continues later:
Most colleges and universities love to claim, in their admission materials, that they consider many indices other than grades and test score-background, extracurricular activities and so forth. But, when it comes time to tell the alumni about the entering class, most college presidents and deans probably do the same old thing: They stand up and cite the outstanding grades and test scores of those who have recently matriculated. We measure what we can measure, and what we cannot measure we claim to value but in practice, we discard.
In a similar way, I was always obsessed with numbers. I remember during the middle of one season in basketball when I thought that Dominique Wilkins was a better player than Michael Jordan. Why? Because he averaged a few fractions of a point more than MJ and I figured because of that he was better. Now for those of you who think I am merely ranting about statistical wonkishness, I am not. But you could see how silly my logic was here. My mistake was using what limited information I had, and I unfortunately drew a conclusion that made me seem like I’ve never watched a game of basketball.
We Worship the Totem Pole
My friends called me an idiot, which is fair, yet we do this all the time elsewhere (and I am a smarter fan of the game now). We love to open up U.S. News read about the top schools (this phenomena is particularly prevalent in Korea, where a man saying the word “Harvard” or “Yale”, and “I have a U.S. passport” would probably drown in the eventual swarm of Korean women.) It extends elsewhere, perhaps though not as obvious. My blog name is derived from Thorstein Veblen’s term, “Conspicuous Consumption“. While I won’t go into too much detail, its really just the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses”. I buy a car, with the hope others see this purchase so they know how awesome I am. A rather clever way of saying, “By purchasing this vehicle/home/frozen margarita machine, I am demonstrating my ability to measure up to or greater than your standards.” If you think I am insane, I ask that you take a look at what drove our financial crisis. This article notes this nicely (about housing):
As other buyers and many bankers became more willing to take absurd risks, even previously prudent consumers felt they had to follow suit.
Hint: People weren’t just taking out massive loans to finance homes because they thought interest rates were advantageous.
What do we Rank and Rate in Others?
But I’ve already spoken about that here and here, so lets change the emphasis a bit. Take relationships (living with an aunt who seems to think I still need my hand held at crosswalks, makes me think I am probably not the best person to write about this). I was having a conversation with a few friends when one of them discussed their upcoming date with a man she found on eharmony. When we asked her how she was matched to this specific guy, she admitted it was difficult after the website gave her a list of choices. So she ordered the listings by their height and chose the one who was the tallest. Was this the best way to do things? Perhaps. But I am not so sure the guys who were not quite 6’1 were worse just because they aren’t quite up to par in terms of height. Was it her fault? I can’t blame her entirely for making a choice on a limited amount of information, but I think the problem lies in when we decide to place an overemphasis on what we do know. The problem is when we overemphasize the things we can measure, we decrease the emphasis on what we can’t measure or quantify. We all suffer from a desire to rank something; and damn it if we can’t, as Carter implied, we’ll just use what is easy to measure.
For instance, guys might for fun assign a numeric value to a girl, saying something to the effect of, “Wow, that girl is an 8.5!”. I will take a Zosima stance on this particular behavior and say, “Each one of us is guilty before everybody for everything, and I am more guilty than anybody else.” Might I also interject that this sort of mental calculus is not unique to men or romantic relationships. Now you ask me what an 8.5 is and I will tell you I have some vague idea that isn’t logically quantifiable per se. The point of this exercise is obvious: even though we don’t know what an 8.5 is, we know its better than an 8. The numbers are a convenient measure to say, “I like this one better than the other.”
What About the Stuff we can’t Measure?
Stephen Carter writes:
We might say that we value honesty-or love……or God. None of the concepts, we will loudly insist, can be measured; and all of this, we will add, is what we value most.
I can assure you that these ranking systems are indexed very little on one’s character. I will argue this condition lends itself to overemphasizing, again, what is easier to measure: looks, charm and perhaps status. Phrases like “She’s hot”, “He’s a baller” etc. don’t lend themselves to deliberate thinking about one’s capacity to be trusting, selfless or loving. This is a mistake that I certainly make over and over again; I take what I can initially and make a judgment call about someone based on the visually quick and aesthetically pleasing. My eHarmony filter doesn’t have a tab for ranking one’s character damn it! I’ll take it because it is so easy and so superficially pleasing. Like the colleges before, we all might say we emphasize certain things, but when push comes to shove, we know what really drives our desires. I blame this in part with a culture (that I am certainly not above) that has lost another meaningful characteristic: patience. Its easy to conclude someone is visually attractive or will become a substantial provider. Taking the time to draw out a person’s character seems to be more and more time wasted in this fast-paced world of ours. It could also be a reason why we might be quicker to end relationships when something “better” comes along. I blog as concisely as possible (I swear I do!) knowing full well most of you probably get bored after the first few words.
Grace is the New Starting Point
Its funny because as a Christian, this is a clear demonstration that I “misunderestimate” the concept of grace. Men are called in the book of Ephesians to “love their wives, as Christ loved the Church”. While I am not a biblical scholar, the love that Christ had for his church was surely not a conditional one based on a standard of measurements that any one of us would hold valuable. Many of early disciples came from lowly (fishermen) or unsavory (tax collectors) positions. Yet he loved them unconditionally and without prerequisite; his love was not based on the initial “sexiness” of those he saw as the foundation of the church. I think that we have been drawing too many lines in the sand though, lines that we can quantify or measure but that we overemphasize and lines that eventually fade away literally with age.
Later in Ephesians, Paul exhorts husbands to “love their wives as their own bodies, he who loves his wife loves himself”. Jumping a little deeper into the fray of relationships, perhaps the bigger problem here is that many of us don’t really love ourselves. I think our own emphasis on measuring up others is just a deeper reflection of one’s own insecurities about themselves. I won’t speak for anyone else here; but I know I am afraid of what the mirror in the morning will tell me, I worry about whether I’ve done well enough at school, I wonder whether I will have made enough money and I wonder what others think of me in all of this. These lines in the sand we’ve been drawing for others remind us painfully about all the lines we fail to meet.
Assuming an omniscient and perfect God, this would be problematic, if we were called to fulfill his standards of excellence. Thus there should be an awareness of the human inability to meet excellence. Sure, we might set up our own standards of excellence, but amidst perfection this becomes meaningless. But if understand the nature of grace; how God doesn’t call us to live in excellence because Christ was the not only symbol but fulfillment of excellence that we so desire in ourselves. This human condition of insecurity is wiped clean; our knowing we don’t have to pretend to be anything we aren’t. There’s a flipside as well, we understand we can look at others in a different light as well. Amidst our own failings, we learn to place less of an emphasis on the “obvious failings” of others. Understanding the gift of grace, helps us realize when someone truly says the love you, they are demonstrating a capacity of grace that you probably didn’t deserve. Or you might think I am insane and are saying, “BDK, you’ve got to be kidding me. I am supposed to marry just anyone then. This is dumb, what kind of love is that?” I hope you don’t read this is an exercise in trying to find the “perfect” companion, I would argue that is impossible. But maybe instead of going back to the place where we drew all these lines in the sand, we can start at a new location called grace. Perfection is above our pay grade, but changing the framework is certainly not beyond our means.