Love in the time of numbers

March 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

As we huddled around his bed, he lay almost motionless, the only movement coming in the gentle rising and falling of his chest. His mother massaged his right arm, his brother, his left. For a few moments we stood silently, watching him breathe, and my eyes scanned the various machines that joined us in standing vigil. Tubes and wires ran from his head and arms to screens bearing numbers. In another area of the room were more machines, revealing not numbers but something more like graphs, little shaded wavelengths, like the zigzagging lines that represent the stock market.

It was the intensive care unit, and I was visiting my former student, who is still in extremely critical condition from his weekend accident. There, in the ICU, all major functions of his body are under watch, billions of chemical reactions and biological processes translated into math. Collectively, the devices acted as one great Richter scale of health. It got me thinking.

We live in a quantifying, numerical age. We understand ourselves and our world increasingly in and by numbers, in and by statistics, percentages, indexes, and yields. We attempt to gauge and capture and predict. We analyze interest rates and speak of balances and loan amounts. If we save x amount of money for y amount of time, we will yield z amount of dollars at t age, assuming the market doesn’t drop below, say, 10,000.

We count calories and cholesterol and the cost of a gallon, for both milk and gas. Our favorite radio station might be 101.5 or 89.3, but our body temperature better remain at 98.6. But even if our body temperature is at 98.6, we might still be in trouble if our credit score is below 700—which could be significantly impacted if our SAT is below 2000 or our GPA is not above 3.0. Unless of course someone has an IQ of around 130, in which case he might be able to skip the SAT, become a lawyer and annually bill about 2000 hours. Need to reach him? No problem, I’ll give you his . . . number.

By themselves, these kind of quantifications are not bad. Our ability to decipher nature in objective terms, to determine cause and effect, to detect and reveal order in almost every aspect of existence: this is nothing short of awesome. I do not fault the geniuses who enabled these achievements; I celebrate them. Their intelligence glorifies God and improves the human condition. I am daily grateful for the health and cohesion this precision affords.

But I think about our Age of Quantification as someone who also desires faith. Man cannot live by math alone. To quantify and calculate, to measure and predict: this can lead one to covet and to cower. More important, living one’s life based solely on what can be calculated destroys the possibility of faith. Faith is a marriage to mystery, an entrusting of oneself to a reality inexpressible in number. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear. Faith is an invitation into the non-quantifiable, the unmeasurable, the dimension beyond statistics and percentages. “Come, follow me,” Jesus says. And that’s the sum total of all he says. There are no target hours of discipleship like there are billable hours for lawyers.

There are times we long to look at a monitor that tells us we are in the range of the normal, to see a graph convincing us of, perhaps, the “long-term yield” of our spiritual commitments. But we receive no such signs. When my grandmother, in her mid-90s, began to deteriorate in a nursing facility, I began to visit her once or twice a week. Eventually, though, I grew reluctant to see her. She started to repeat stories, she couldn’t hear well, and the facility often smelled of urine. Sometimes she was rude. She often forgot conversations from my prior visit. I began to ask, “Should I go? What is she getting out of this? Who is helped?” I wanted verification, I wanted a look or word of acknowledgment that my actions were — I hate to say it — paying off.

But now I know I was foolish. I had started to judge my visits on the criteria of the market, on a strange calculus of input and output. Instead, my only role was to clasp her hand, tell her how much I loved her, tell her how thankful I was for the way she cared for my brother and me; for changing our diapers, for braving our urine, for teaching us our prayers, for driving us to practice, for the ice cream from Dairy Queen and the thousands of times she hugged us, babysat us, and made us feel, with pizza and Mountain Dew, like a million bucks. I had only to whisper that she was not alone and let my own embrace mirror the cradling I once received from her.

It’s simple. I had only to arrive in faith and leave in faith and embody the love that knows no number, that requires no threshold score. The love that, as St. Paul told us, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” The love that, unlike the stock market, never — ever — fails.

[*Update: Greg, my student, died on March 24, in the early morning hours of Palm Sunday.]

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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