Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sermon: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the SAT" (Delivered 8-15-10)

Alacrity. Punctilious.

Springtime. 1994. My junior year in high school.

Solicitous. Nonplussed.

Monday afternoon. English class. Two weeks before the SAT. A voice from one of my classmates, “It’s only two weeks until the SAT. Can you please quiz us with a few vocab words before class starts?”


Wayland Public High School was usually a pretty high strung place. But with The Test coming up the anxiety level was ratcheting up to record levels. The following Friday, the day before the SAT, the same student again made another request, “Since tomorrow is the SAT, could we spend this entire class period going over vocabulary words.”

Acerbate. Pusillanimous.

What our teacher did next was something that I would never forget. He winced. His voice grew loud, “Stop. I mean just stop. I mean… listen.” He turned away from the black board and relaxed into the front of his desk. His voice grew soft and he delivered a startling monologue.

He told us about his freshman year at Stanford. He shared openly and frankly about some choices that he had made that year, how he would find himself at the end of the year not only fighting to stay in school but fighting for his life. He also told us that he eventually got to go back, and earned a Ph.D. in English literature. But the moral of the story was that this test was going to have a very insignificant impact on the course of our lives. Much more important and significant things would shape our futures.

Again, a student raised her hand. “Well, could you at least quiz us on a few vocab words. I mean, Stanford is my safety school.”

The point I might make here is, in fact, quite obvious. It is a point about how we measure our lives. After all, our lives are full of things that we track, that we count, that we measure. Some things we are able to count with a great deal of precision: the amount of money in a bank account, the square feet in a house, the score received on a standardized test. Other things are measured without numbers: the brand name on a car or an article of clothing, the prestige associated with having been to a certain restaurant or entertainment event or vacation destination. And, of course, some things like happiness, contentedness, and satisfaction are a bit more challenging to try to measure.

So, what do you spend your time measuring? What do you spend your time counting?

Besides the question of how to count, there is the question of what is really worthwhile to count. Disparate fields have been revolutionized by people who have insisted that it is important to count this thing as opposed to that thing. In the past decade the sport baseball has undergone a sea change with statisticians rethinking how player performance should be measured. Even in the world of religion there has been a move to get congregations to quantify some things as opposed to other things.

Whenever I log out of my Yahoo! email account there is a page that pops up with a list of trending news articles. And, many of the articles aren’t actually news per se. Instead, they tend to be lifestyle stories in the form of lists. A couple of weeks ago an article popped up listing the top cities for young adults. I decided to page through the cities on their list and I noticed that New York City made the list and that Denver did not. And I began to think, “Well, this list is stupid.” Isn’t it all just a matter of what you decide to count? If you live for skiing, hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking, New York City is not going to make you a very happy person. If you live for the theater, you will find yourself getting restless in Denver.

During my time at Harvard I had the opportunity to witness a group of people who were very focused on one kind of counting. In the Harvard Law School dorms there is a tradition in which, at the beginning of the third year, many of the 3L students tape all of their offer letters from firms on the doors of their dorm rooms. All of these letters offered six-figure base salaries, signing bonuses, and all sorts of other benefits and perks. Wile visiting the Law School dorm at this time of the year I walked past several doors that had more than a dozen offer sheets taped up. When space ran out on the doors, the offer sheets spilled over onto the adjacent wall.

And, this seemed like a very odd thing to count competitively, seeing as how each student would only be able to choose one. But, what was striking to me was that there was this very clear, very apparent system that the students used to compare themselves to one another. I wondered, what about all the other facets of life? Might there be other measurements worthy of consideration as well?

Obvious point again, the point about how there is often a stark discrepancy between the things we pay a great deal of attention to and the things that matter profoundly in contributing to living a life with meaning and value. To paraphrase Emerson, “A person will count something—have no doubt about that… Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we measure, for what we are measuring we are becoming.”

To summarize what I’ve argued so far: The danger in placing a great significance on counting some things is that it may lead us to disregard other things that may be more important to count, to count some things expense of other things, other things that might help us to live better lives. It is possible to over-focus and grow obsessed with measuring things to our own detriment. It is easier to measure a person’s net worth than their happiness. It is easier to measure a grade point average than the depth of a person’s wisdom. It is easier to measure a person’s stuff than it is the depth of love in a person’s relationships.

To the Yahoo news feed: You can’t rank cities. Every single person is going will rank cities differently based on individual personal preferences, passions, interests, and values.

To the 3L students: Your compensation package is one thing, but there are some other things you may want to measure. What impact does your life have on your community? What does it take to become a full person?

To the students my high school English class: What our teacher said was true, the future course of your lives will be determined by so much more than it is possible to account for on a test.

I want to take us back for a second to that high school English class. And, I want for us to go back to that moment when the student was so caught up in her own measuring of what was important that she couldn’t even hear the message from our teacher imploring us to keep a sense of perspective. I wondered why she couldn’t hear him.

It could well have been that she couldn’t hear this message because her way of approaching the world seemed to be working pretty well for her. But, let me try to ask this question again. Why do people measure things that, in the end, are not really the measure of a good and worthy life?

I mean, deep down, people know that they are more than the sum of a bunch of numbers. Maybe they don’t know this, but I think most people do know this. Maybe this is na├»ve or overly optimistic for me to think, but I think that if you asked people what was really important, they would tell you that what is important is that that they have love in their life, family and friends, connection and relationships. They would tell you that making a positive impact in the life of other people and in their community is important to them.

There is a passage from the Bible that I think captures the difference between what people say is important and what people spend their time measuring. The passage is from the prophet Micah.
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression…?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In this passage you can just imagine the people to whom Micah is speaking. What does the Lord require of you? And the people, they aren’t dumb. Nobody actually raises his hand and says, “Well, I think that what God really wants is the fatted calf.”

Look even more closely at the text. There is a progression. The first objects identified in the texts are the burnt offerings and year old calves. Then, the text escalates the counting. The next items listed are “thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil.” Finally, amidst the list of massive riches we find the offer to sacrifice the firstborn child. It is a passage about how if we count lesser things we might wind up forgetting the value of that which is much more important.

Instead, maybe it would be better simply to keep a ledger of our efforts in pursuit of justice, our acts of lovingkindness, and the moments when we do walk humbly with God.

So, where is this coming from? From fear, I think. For all the lightheartedness that I have tried to bring to this subject, it is, if we are really being honest with ourselves, a scary, scary thing to actually try to count and measure what is truly important and worthy. It is easy and comforting to count sheep. It is difficult to measure our lives by what we truly hold to be most important. Passing our time counting things that are less important can serve as a very effective distraction against forcing ourselves into the hard task of asking ourselves what has meaning and then calibrating our life with that sense of meaning.

It is a scary thing to ask: What if we did measure ourselves based on our deepest and most sacred values? What if we measured those things in our own lives and found we didn’t like what we discovered? Well, then we might actually have to change. We might have to make different choices.

The stakes are high. The stakes are this one life that you have been given.

In her meditation manual, Walking Towards Morning, Victoria Safford writes on this theme,
In a cemetery once, an old one in New England, I found a strangely soothing epitaph… [On the headstone were] the words, “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” At first this seemed to me a little meager, a little stingy on the part of her survivors, but I wrote it down and have thought about it since, and now I can’t imagine a more proud or satisfying legacy.

Every day I stand in danger of being struck by lightning and having the obituary in the local paper say, for all the world to see, “She attended frantically and ineffectually to a great many unimportant, meaningless details.”
Safford goes on to list several other sample epitaphs. “He got all the dishes washed and dried before playing with his children in the evening.” “She answered all her calls, all her email, all her voicemails, but along the way she forgot to answer the call to service and compassion…”

Albert Einstein once said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Or, as our hymn puts it, “If they ask what I did best, tell them I said ‘Yes’ to love.”