It starts before we’re born – how many weeks? Then it’s pounds and ounces and inches, percentiles and months all along the way. Pretty soon it becomes grade, grade level, grade point average. Test scores and number of acceptances become class rank and graduation date. Before you know it, starting salary, 401k, vacation days become the focus. And all along, age and height and weight follow around.
This is not to mention the number of friends, followers, likes, and retweets. This is not to mention right-swipes and number of partners. This is not to mention your hotness rated on a crude 1-10 scale. This is not to mention the bold number next to your inbox, or how many texts you have waiting.
All my life I have been painted by numbers. As though my whole soulful self could be measured. As though the dollar signs and thumbs up and number on the scale could tell you what exactly I’m worth, let alone who I am.
I think we come by these numbers honestly – certainly, these numbers come in handy. You must know a child’s weight to diagnose medicine appropriately. Grades help tell us how much we’ve learned. We track numbers like cholesterol and blood pressure to keep an eye on our health.
It’s not that the numbers are evil – they’re just not everything. We can use this data, which is all it is, simple data, in harmful ways. It’s all to easy to become obsessed with our numbers: when our worth is staked on the number of likes our photo gets, when the number simply appearing on the scale feels like a scream, when your GPA or SAT or ACT or ETC becomes who you are.
These numbers may be helpful, at times, but they are only the background, the outline, meant to be filled in with color and texture. They are meant to be a starting place, from which the hand of the painter fills in the details through interaction and exploration.
I may be a heap of numbers – my age, number of boyfriends, number of years on the job, number of years of education, how many days a week I do yoga, how much I earn, how much I weigh… but I am infinitely more than that.
I am an artist, a teacher, a healer. I am a friend, a sister, a daughter. I am an introvert who loves to talk, I am a homebody who loves to travel, I am a Lutheran pastor who is committed to the practice of Buddhism and the eight-fold path of yoga. I am a hot mess and I am absolutely perfect, I’m a tree-hugging lumberjack, I always paint my nails and never dye my hair.
And who are you? What is irreducible about you? What are the ways that people seek to confine and define you? How can we see the numbers all around us as the raw material that we get to color in? Are there ways to avoid this?
In our longing for shorthand – a way to understand – we miss out on the mystery within each person. Let’s fill our lives and our identities with vibrancy and texture and playful consideration, knowing that the lines and numbers are just the things we color outside of!