Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Metric System

And different people might deserve different metrics
After getting home from the show yesterday night, my sister and I were getting out of the car and we both remarked that we had keys to unlock the front door, so I did the little-brotherly thing to do and proclaimed "It's a race!" and bolted towards the door. My sister didn't even try to keep up, so I got there and unlocked the door. When she tried to tell me that I had won, I corrected her: I won by one metric--the first person to get to the door--but she won according to another metric--my personal favorite: the laziness metric, or the one that gets the most gain (here an unlocked door) for the least work (not running or getting out one's keys).

I like to (try to) remember that success only exists in the context of a metric to measure it. We often forget that, and it's a great source of miscommunication. Success can refer to making a boatload of money, having lots of kids, being a kind person, or crossing an arbitrary physical line sooner before any other person does. And in fact, success according to one of these metrics often correlates strongly with failure according to another (i.e., more kids generally translates into less money).

Institutional success is sometimes even harder to define because metrics can get even more complicated. Is America better today than it was 50 years ago? Measuring by wealth, definitely. But do we have stronger morals? Well, I think we're pretty clearly less racist and sexist, but maybe we're more selfish and less committed to meaningful relationships, too. I don't really know how to measure those things accurately, though, and even if I could measure them individually how much weight do I give to each one so I can compare the grand total?

Today at church I was thinking about how I often try to measure the success of that institution by the metric of how much I'm entertained or intellectually fed. Yet I have good reason to believe that God's metric has more to do with how much I'm challenged or forced to listen to people I find boring or how many opportunities I have to help other people--you know, the kinds of things that actually detract from the church's success under my selfish metric.

The metrics we use are just one of the many assumptions we have--about the world, about ourselves, about our loved ones and friends--that we need to think about from time to time. It's amazing how quickly you can go from having failed to having succeeded (or vice versa!) if you just swap out the metric you're using for another one.

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