It is the time of year when people have set goals and are running out of the gate at breakneck speed to meet them. At the beginning of the new year we are so energetic. So eager. We have thrown off weariness of the old year and have set new goals to strive for.
The peoples out there tell us to make our goals tangible. Numeric, even. In business development. In physical health. In personal improvement. I get that. How do you know where you are without a mile marker? How do you know if you have crossed the finish line without a line to cross?
There are a few problems with these numbers, though.
1.) We can get competitive. And while that competition may be good at producing results, it rarely produces the inner growth and peace we are shooting for. Blow them all out of the water and you can perhaps think a little too highly of yourself when, in fact, the reason may be that you have better running shoes or a smoother path. Lapse behind and you can feel horribly inferior and like a failure, even if you made the best effort you can.
2.) We can begin to define ourselves and measure our value by our numbers. I know way too many people whose very identities are caught up in numbers of all kinds. What woman out there hasn't had her psyche crushed by the number on a scale? The number on the pants label? And yet we know that a number doesn't define something like health. An overweight person who exercises regularly and eats a reasonable diet is far more healthy than a super thin, smoker, couch potato who lives on Little Debbies and Mountain Dew.
3.) The numbers don't always measure the effort involved. In real estate we are told to set a goal for number of transactions closed in the next year. And I get that. You gotta shoot for something. There are, after all, bills to pay. But serving my clients well is not always reflected in more transactions closed. I think of the wonderful couple I worked with this past year who were trying to thread a very, very thin needle and, over the course of several months had two different homes under contract, only to terminate both contracts due to factors I had no control over. And then they decided to put off the entire purchase until this next year. I have no regrets for them. I have full confidence that I did my very best for them. But my effort cannot be measured by a number.
4.) Numbers can put quantity over quality. They represent the outside, not the inside. The surface, but not necessarily the core. The performance, but not the heart.
I got to thinking all this about numbers because of my own numbers game.
When I was a young mom with even younger kids I grew weary of the fact that nothing I ever did stayed done. A friend commented that when her kids were the age of mine, she got a lot of satisfaction out of crocheting for just that reason. It was the one thing in her life that stayed done.
Seeing how I had no skills whatsoever and seeing how I had been blessed with 10 thumbs instead of the usual two and a set of nimble fingers, I knew crafty handiwork was out. So I decided to do the only thing I knew I could do. I decided to read.
And so read I did. And every time I finished a book I wrote it down on a list. And at the end of each year I could look back and see I had done something that stayed done. Satisfaction at last.
But then I started counting. I would count how many books I read that year. Some years, especially the years when I was racing through the Newbery Medal winners, I read an impressive number of books. Other years, the number just wasn't quite up to snuff and I felt guilty. How unusual for me!
A few years ago I decided to set a reading goal. I don't remember what the original number was but for the past four of five years, my goal has been to read 25 books. For me that is a pretty manageable number to shoot for without being unreachable. Just enough push. Set obtainable goals, they say. I am happy to say I reach that goal every year.
But I've run into a problem. Actually, a couple of problems. And they showcase the problems with numbers.
I can find a book I really, really want to read, but it is long. Really long. In fact there are three 600+ page books next to my bed right now. But I have lost the incentive to read them because they will only count for one book when I could be reading at least 2 for the same page count. And what if I get bogged down at page 435? I've spent all that reading time with nothing to show for it because I only write down books that I have finished. Remember?
The other problem is that I will often rush through a book just to finish it. So I can write it down. So I will be one more book closer to my goal. And sometimes I will read a book, a really, really good book. Perhaps a life-changing book. But I don't go slow. I don't ponder. I don't chew on the words and journal their implications. All because I don't have time. Because I have to move on to the next book.
Almost two years ago I wrote a blog post, The Numbers Game, where I fleshed out my thought on numbers. Two years later I have the same concerns. Only more up close and personal.
I've watched how I have chosen quantity over quality. I have wasted time reading a bad book just so I can write it down. I have avoided excellent books just because they are too long or too hard and therefor will impact my book count. I have read incredible books and stuffed them back on the shelf without giving them another glance because I have to move on to the next. The numbers are calling.
My point is, when we focus on the numbers, we lose something.
When I focus on how many houses I'm closing this year, I cease to focus on caring well for my clients. I've heard from teachers that the focus on test results takes away their time and energy to teach well.
When my mother was dying, I kept watching her numbers. What was her oxygen level. What was her blood pressure. I wanted so badly to know how close she was to death that the nurse finally came in and turned off the equipment. I needed to focus on my mother. Not the numbers.
We love the concrete. It tells us where we are. How we've done. Whether or not we can pat ourselves on the back.
But life is so much more than numbers. And so is the Kingdom of God.
Love, mercy, kindness, compassion, justice, These are things that cannot be measured. And yet I think if we aim for these things, the numbers will take care of themselves. Or they won't matter any more.
As for me, I'm not setting a numbers goal this year for my reading. I am going to read to learn. I am going to read to grow. I am going to read to relax. I am going to read to enjoy. I may not have as much to show for it at the end of the year, numbers wise, but I hope that the things that cannot be measured will prove to be worth it.
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