yellow tape measure
Photo by Rodolfo Clix on

Do you remember the scene in the original Mary Poppins movie where Mary uses a tape measure to find that she is “practically perfect in every way”? Those words are written on the tape in place of numbers. What an encouraging image that is. I wish we all had such a tape measure to judge our own worth. In my life, however, all my tape measures have had numbers on them, and they are tyrants.

A pediatrician once measured me, found I was “tall for my age” and predicted I would top out at 6 feet. The fact that I am 5 foot seven is one of my life’s number-related disappointments.

In elementary school they gave me the “special test,” found I was “gifted” and put me in MGM (Mentally Gifted Minors) class. The numbers on the test (never revealed to me for fear of “giving me a big head”) set me apart and gave me unreasonable expectations of my future success. I ended up an average high school English teacher. Another disappointment.

In high school and college, I was a slave to my GPA. As the AP English teacher, I was a slave to the annual report of how my students did on the AP exam.

Now, as a blogger and author, I am a slave to numbers still. How many names are on my email list? How many followers does my author page on Facebook have? How many books have I sold? What is my ranking on Amazon in my book’s category? These are the tyrant numbers that plague my intellectual and professional self-esteem.

My personal/ body self esteem is oppressed by other numbers: weight, measurements, clothing size, and how many calories are in the food I am about to eat.

I never realized how much power I give to numbers until I clipped out a heading to paste on my vision board for 2019: “Don’t let numbers define you.” But I have let numbers define me all my life, and I am not a happy person.

As I have said in earlier essays, the human brain is wired to judge. Numbers make a handy tool for judging. They are specific, measurable, and concrete. If we can measure it, we can label it.

My experience tells me that measuring and labeling cause suffering for those children and adults who must bear those labels. I don’t think God cares about measurement in numbers. I think he cares about virtues and gifts that are harder to measure, like faith, hope, and love.

Reflecting on the power I have ceded to numbers in my life has opened my eyes to another of my false beliefs: that I am worthless if my numbers are too high or too low. To expunge this lie, I choose to see this picture:

Jesus, dressed up as Mary Poppins, is holding a tape measure up to me and reading out in a loud voice: “Just as I thought: Practically Perfect in Every Way.”


One thought on “The Tyranny of Numbers

  1. Thanks for the post—I really enjoyed this one! And am a fan of Mary Poppins, thinking always about that ‘practically perfect in every way.’ Numbers have ruled my life as well. Maybe its time to move into acceptance whether the numbers add up to what we’d hoped for or not.


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