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The Things that Count Cannot be Counted

by Daniel O’Rourke


Albert Einstein loved wordplay. He once wrote on a classroom blackboard at Princeton, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”


Our society counts a lot. It counts votes, mortgage rates and interest rates, the values of cars and trade-ins, sales (for stuff we don’t need), lawyer services (no money down – but 30% at settlement), the number of pounds lost -- and the price of weight-loss programs. We count salaries and perks and watch the stock market gyrations until we are cross-eyed.

We also count sports with religious like fervor. Scores, of course, but also percentages of pass completions, batting averages, RBI’s, ERA’s, hat tricks and third-down conversions. We like to count everything.

Ironically, however, whether it’s sports or money, most of this doesn’t count. In the long run it really doesn’t matter. On this the great thinkers, insightful writers and spiritual masters agree. That’s what Einstein was warning us about. There are more important things than those we can weigh, tally and calculate mathematically. The most important realities are spiritual. They are immaterial; they can’t be counted, scored or graphed. You can’t compute love of friends, spouse and children; you can’t claim faith and spirituality on your tax return.

If you don’t like a physicist like Einstein telling you that, how about a philosopher? Bertrand Russell writes, "It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly." And here is Ben Franklin, "He does not possess wealth; it possesses him."

If you are not comfortable with Russell, Franklin or Einstein and would like a religious take on it all, here are some spiritual masters. “Man's obsession to add to his wealth and honor is the chief source of his misery." That’s Torah scholar Moses Maimonidies -- and here’s the Dalai Lama: “It is important to have balance within oneself especially when it comes to our earthly possessions. If an individual has a sufficient spiritual base, he won’t let himself be overwhelmed by the lure of technology and by the madness of possession.” And -- for me personally the most important of all -- Jesus: "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul" (Mark 8:36).

Perhaps, though, you would prefer a poet’s insight? In “The Little Prince,” Antoine de St. Exupery tells us, "It is only with the heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

Materialism, however, surrounds us, bombards us, overwhelms us. I regularly read the “New Yorker.” Its writing is world-class. Its humor is wry and sophisticated. The magazine covers fiction, history and world events. I find its political commentary incisive, but its advertising is something else. It’s materialism on steroids. It appeals to our pride and imagined superiority. Here’s an ad for a luxury car. “You walk into a room with confidence. Shouldn’t you enter a highway the same way?”

But whether it is cars, five-star hotels, rare whiskeys, high-priced jewelry or Rolex watches, it is rampant materialism. And the advertisers are experts in subtly and not so subtly appealing to our pride, lust and smugness. It is impossible to avoid it, but as the wisest throughout history have told us: It doesn’t count. The essential values that matter are not advertised on TV or in magazines.

Marya Mannes, an author and critic known for her caustic but insightful observations on American life, warned us, "A high standard of living is usually accompanied by a low standard of thinking" -- and I would add usually by a lower level of happiness.

Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His column appears in the Observer, Dunkirk, NY on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website



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