On Tv this week, we saw a 60’s engineer use a slide rule, and I wondered how many viewers might not have any idea what it was. I never learned to use one myself – but I sure remember how expensive those Texas instrument calculators were before they became more commonplace in the 70s. So much of life seems to be about measurement – starting with learning our numbers in elementary school, or maybe standing in the hallway or garage to have our growth commemorated and celebrated.
I loved storytelling and the library from my earliest years, and music – and eventually the old musicals on TV, like Danny Kaye in “ Hans Christian Anderson”. The great Frank Loesser wrote several original songs for that picture, all lovely – but today, the one still performed by artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, the Muppets, and John Coltrane. Apparently, unlike “The Ugly Duckling” or “Thumbelina”, “Inchworm” was not derived from one of Hans’ stories, but it resonates for many through the contrast of school children sadly singing “two and two are four, four and four are eight” while Danny Kaye sings his suggestion the inchworm stop measuring the marigolds, and consider instead their beauty.
Of course measuring is very important to life – my career was based on it. I chose accounting as a career path, learning to categorize, measure, trend and forecast – almost like a psychic with a calculator instead of a crystal ball. Two of the greatest 20th century minds of business management both emphasized the critical nature of measurement to success. W. Edwards Deming used statistics to reinvigorate production models- but also acknowledged the limits of measurement.
I had the wonderful opportunity to study under another great mind of management theory – Peter Drucker, famous for declaring “what gets measured gets managed”. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and was known for his ability to accurately read trends and their implications. But I vividly recall his words that his secret was simple – he simply would look out at what was happening in the world around him as it passed by, and consider the implications. His principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business. In fact, at one of his annual Claremont graduate university alumni events, evangelist Rick Warren, author of the bestselling “Purpose driven life” paid tribute to Peter as a mentor and friend whose teachings helped him in his own ministry. Drucker’s principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business.
Often we seek to treat everything as reducible to a numeric value – our grades, our weight and blood pressure, our income and budget. But we also measure, compare and in other ways – “measuring up”, “fitting in”, conformity, meeting expectations of our social circles, our parents, and even using our children as somehow indicative of our comparative value. Yet every milestone we have achieved eventually leads not to a place of rest, but a quest for the next goal. It can become a constant cycle of trying to prove our worth – that we “made it”. But what is – “it”?
It’s interesting to me that my writings occasionally lead to comments from friends that there are elements of Buddhist perspective in my writing. I am unfamiliar with Eastern or Buddhist traditions or thinking; my child and early adult religious traditions varied from standard denominational Christianity to evangelical, and beyond. But for me, and many others, unfortunately the emphasis in those lessons and standards was heavily weighted towards measurement, striving, achieving, conforming. I have come to believe and accept that striving to be something we are not yet needs to be balanced with accepting and sharing honestly who we are right now. And, a hand in hand – learning to offer that same acceptance to others.
Our desire to measure ourselves against one another can lead to more than just faulty reporting. This week, in a zoom meeting of a few dozen LGBT individuals trying to work together towards meeting needs in our community, we were abruptly and viciously “bombed” by intruders. Loud music, shouted curses, ugly expletives and hateful labeling made speech for a moment impossible. It was shocking. But what struck most deeply was the power of 3 words – an old and deep lie – God hates faggots. The stain remained after they were disconnected. It remains in their hearts.
I don’t consider God to be a four letter word. But I know and respect that many – including myself – have been scarred, abused and rejected by those who claim to speak in the name of what they consider to be the ultimate authority, by whatever name they think of it. Yet I feel sad for anyone, for all of us, who have put any hope of a loving creative force aside in a box and labeled it as poison, or something destructive to be not embraced but avoided. In our pain, anger, or fear – we limit the ability of a greater spirit to what we have experienced and seen, closing it off from our hearts, or like the voices of hate on that zoom call, using a twisted version of it to tear down those different from ourselves. Their limited vision is not the truth. Simply put – their God is too small. Do we, with our desire to measure, to limit, to contain and define and control – do the same?
Humanity and societies across our globe throughout centuries have looked beyond what we “know” for a framework to understand that which is perhaps unknowable – the truths outside of our intellects, that we sometimes sense in a way words cannot express and numbers cannot define. Might it be true that that which is eternal is beyond measure in the senses which our culture and society have hammered into our ways of thinking? That the forces we cannot see or understand are inherently bigger than any box or structure, paradigms or writings might try to reduce it to? Could it be that someone in BCE 400 might experience that eternal Power in a way different than someone on the other side of the globe in CE 1200, or than you do where you are in 2020, and how I do today? Is it that hard to stop trying to put God in a box where we control Him/Her/Them, and instead – just try to listen? It’s hard to hear much when you’re doing all the talking.
Perhaps what we consider to be irrational is based in a different kind of knowledge – not scientific is the traditional sense, but an understanding that cultures and generations have reached towards without ever truly fully grasping – because it is beyond our ability to encompass with our intellects, beyond being able to capture it in words or images. In my youth choir and years of seeking my own sense of peace for the questions that have both limited and freed me, my traditions have included many of the old hymns that were common more than a century ago. One such hymn was written by a Frederick M. Lehman, who as I discovered as I researched for this article, was surprisingly born in the same small region in Germany where my great great grandfather William Granzow emigrated from in the 19th century – Mecklinburg, Schwerin. That hymn, “The love of God”, is most famous for its final, third stanza. By his own account, more than 100 years ago Lehman heard an evangelist quote those words, as found on the walls of an asylum cell. To me, this simple analogy captures the futility of measuring, and the immense beauty of that unknown infinite –
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the sky of parchment made; were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade; to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God”
Interestingly, other background articles on this verse show striking similarities to Hebrew sacred texts dating back to the 11thcentury, and also to a passage in the Quran dating to the 7th century. Perhaps beyond the limits of our precepts there are commonalities in the yearnings of our souls.
Whoever wrote these words, and however they knew them, scrawled on the walls of an asylum, found meaning, and hope from them. For all, our quest to make sense of life – in essence, to obtain what may be only an illusion of control through knowledge – we inevitably reach a juncture where answers fail but questions remain. One of my favorite obscure films is “They might be giants” with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward from 1971. Scott is a brilliant judge who has retreated after his wife’s death into seeing himself as Sherlock Holmes; his therapist is, perhaps coincidentally, a Dr. Emily Watson. “They might be giants” of course refers to Don Quixote, fighting his windmills who he sees as threats in a quest to become the hero. Holmes tells Watson that only by looking at the things we think we “know” and considering the possibility that they might be something else, do we find the opportunity for new discoveries, new truths. Watson tries to “cure” him as they seek Moriarty in 70’s NYC, featuring an exquisite score by John Barry.
Do they defeat Moriarty, or does he even exist? The film in some ways asks the same questions we all face – or avoid facing. The final words on the screen always struck me as simple, yet profound-
The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.“They might be giants” screenwriter William Goldman, who also wrote “The Lion in Winter”, “Robin and Marion” and “Nicholas and Alexandra”
There are elements in all our lives that may defy measurement or understanding, yet have for more significance than all the seemingly pressing demands that scream for our attention. I’ve reached a place where questions without answers are ok. Where measuring still plagues me at times, but is balanced with an awareness that a greater love reaches out to me, and all of us, not limited by the words that demand more from us, but instead offer grace to us. This passing era – when all we have taken for granted seems uncertain, when there are no answers – brings a hidden gift. For a moment – we can choose to pause, cease seeking to know – and to listen. Not perhaps for answers – but for new questions. And like the inchworm, to stop measuring, and see the beauty that shimmers around us, in awe – listening, silently.