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25 July 2006

Change yardsticks

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." - Albert Einstein

"Our property taxes--just property taxes--were $30,000! Can you imagine! Of course, it was a 3-story house on the biggest lake in Texas, and we had two boats and a boat-landing, but still!" she exclaimed in mock astonishment. The litany continued; I half expected to hear the make, model, and cost of her washer and dryer. "It was just a huge amount of upkeep," she continued. "But of course, we hired all that out." Of course, I thought to myself.

It was a performance of sorts, wasn't it? A measuring against, a tally of worth voiced for our benefit. We were on the deck of a B&B on the Oregon coast--an amazing place on the ocean; the waves were crashing behind her. I didn't know her; she was an anonymous guest there, just like me. I suddenly wanted the waves to crash over her to drown out the drone of the bank account.

Why do we measure our worth in such ways? We all do it--either by our bank account or pants size or IQ or length of our bio or number of visitors to our website or the number of people in our class or our rolodex...What measure is it for you? for me? that magic bar against which we measure our worth in the world? Is it the square footage in our home, the make of our cars, our hip size, the number of readers we have, the number of countries we have visited, the number of links we have? How do we feel worthy in the world? By some internal measure or by an external one? What is the cost of both?

I squelched the urge to ask her how large her boat was. It wouldn't do to encourage the litany: one-upmanship would be ugly.

I listened to the ongoing establishment of worth. "We go on two long cruises a year. We've done Alaska, Europe, China." It reminded me, oddly, of Emma and her Pokemon cards when she was in the sixth grade--"I'll give you Asia if you'll give me South America." I created a Global Cult of Acquisition in my mind as I nodded and listened to her; she would be Queen of the Cult, her crown made of credit cards--platinum, gold, silver--an insufferable coterie of Bigger Things, like the man who recently spent a year making trades, starting with a red paper clip and trading up, and up, and up, until he ended up with a house.

Each trade we make requires more of a sacrifice. If that's true--and I believe it is--the goal had better be a real one, a good one: not the acquisition of country notches on my belt or bedpost, but engagement with different cultures. Not expensive cut glass, but the way the light shines through it at dawn. Not the number of cruises, but what you learn about living from the characters you meet on board. Not the property taxes and square footage, but the sound of crickets on the lake at sunset.

E.M. Schumacher has written about "Buddhist Economics": "While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation...It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation, but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things, but the craving for them."

The modern economist, Schumacher continues, "is used to measuring the 'standard of living' by the amount of annual consumption, assuming...that a man who consumes more is 'better off' than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption."

"The ownership and the consumption of goods is a means to an end, and Buddhist economics is the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity."

How do I measure my "standard of living," my worth? How do others measure it? By the size of my clothing, my house, my car, my library, the number of books I've written, the money I have? It's a long list. It smothers us; we are not living from the inside out, but the other way around. We are losing who we are, our voice, in the crashing waves of expectations--we are all in a conspiracy of silence, a complicity. Like dominoes, we pass it on--these are the grades you should get, how you should behave, what you should wear, what good girls do and do not do.

When Emma was younger--at the very beginning of measurement in her life--she stood in the bathroom one day, looking at herself in the mirror. It was a new moment for her, those young days of carefree movement in the world were ending; soon she would begin tugging on her clothes like all women do, gauging whether those pants made her look fat. As she modeled herself in the mirror, she called out to me: "Mama! Mama!" I heard. I went to the bathroom door, waiting for the truest sign that she was lost to the Beauty Cult. "Mama," she said. "Do you think...? Do you think I look...?" Here it comes, I thought. "Do you think I look interesting?" she finally asked.

My heart burst open. What a wonderful measure of worth--not "beautiful," but "interesting." It was a better yardstick, a richer and more human one, a sustaining and sense-making one, a yardstick to measure by, the truest one.

~*~ 37days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Look interesting, not beautiful. Wear what you want to wear; stop saying "should." Stop talking about any worth that is external to you--it. does. not. matter.

Live from the inside out. Change yardsticks.


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I've lived my entire adult life not caring about consumption or materialism or the acquisiton of things that our society says I should value. I'm fierce about it. But it can be harsh to be on the receiving end of other people's judgment that I'm not 'measuring up.' Some people can only see one kind of yardstick. :)

This is a wonderful post, Patti. Possessions, trips, and accumulations have their place in our world, but it is important to remember to relegate it to its place. In our dualistic society of either-or, we find people who are obsessed with their measures of success and others who treat any materialistic progress as a parasitic evil. There is a middle ground. My wife and I enjoy what we consider a "healthy middle class lifestyle." What's made it healthy is our view to always live well beneath our means. It keeps us from stressing over what the storms of life will do to our materials... it's all just stuff. Recently, my wife lost the diamond from her wedding band. The only grief either of us felt over it was the story attached to it (see my "I Guess I'm Stuck with You Now" post on 7-23). Materials are merely a means by which we connect with people... engaging rather than one-upping. Awesome post as always.

isn't it boring, listening to someone list their possessions? then to have them go on and tell all about their latest acquisition... i always wonder if they ever have anything real to say. or if they ever think about interesting and important things-- at least things that would be interesting and important to me. there is so much to consider in the world besides material possessions. i know you know what i'm saying. anyway, great essay, patti. i loved the story of emma in the bathroom mirror-- what a great thing to want to be, interesting! it is so wonderful to be surprised and delighted by what comes out of our childrens' mouths. thanks for starting my day off with a smile!

Patti...I appreciated your was interesting (and beautiful too) was ironic that I read your blog often in bloglines and I was peeved that you did not have a bigger subscription number...(measurement creeping into thinking like a neuron pinball bouncing off of everything in the brain)...I can count on you to encourage my thinking and 37 days is not a measurement of time left so much as a mindful live in the moment alarm clock...wake up David.

Thanks Patti.


I'm interested in this post on several levels and I wish I was not sitting at my desk at the office but at home where I can think with more clarity and give this post the attention it deserves.
I def measure my worth by my readers and by the circumference of my waist.
I feed myself with material things when my inner life is a ruinous landscape.
But I define myself, and try to live by, zen and buddhist principles...
And I agree with the other commenter who wrote that it can be hard when people insist on measuring you by their yardsticks.
In practice, I refuse to talk about earnings, things I own, and generally try to avoid the folks who focus on those things.


This is a wonderful post. It's who you are, not what you have. It's your character in the end that people remember.

It's the qualities-of-your-being that people will talk about at your funeral not your stuff.

Hi Patti!

Another beautifully written and thought-provoking post. It really isn't about possessions and materialism, is it? What about authenticity and sharing our love and light in the world while empowering others to do the same? Thank you for illuminating us to what really matters . . .

oh my godess, somedays i feel positively no reason to write my own post when i can simply link to yours and thereby "say" all and more of what's in my heart. thank you for this wonderful post!

Great post - I find myself altered to those subconcious material measure in the moments when I'm looking back at myself wondering what others would think... how they would act or perceive my action. Sticky, sticky stuff. Thanks for the reminder.

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