Summing up with some sums
Essay | You can count on numbers to tell the stories of our lives
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 8/04/18, 10:46 am
Several readers recently asked when more installments in my autobiographical series would come, since it’s two years and seven months since the last one. Episode 16 took us to 2011, when I left The King’s College, New York City. Episodes 17–19, instead of carrying the tale forward, told stories about my ancestors and baseball. Have I run out of steam?
Short answer: Yes, but out of contentment rather than sadness. God has blessed my decision in 2011 to go from full time with WORLD to double time: In 2011 I became dean of the World Journalism Institute as well as WORLD’s editor in chief. My decades of academic/journalistic bifurcation ended, and I’ve enjoyed a 70-hour-per-week unity of vocation and avocation, work and fun: lots of interesting experiences, particularly meeting and teaching Christians I would never have encountered otherwise.
That doesn’t make for scintillating episodes, though. The last seven years have brought satisfaction but not much drama, and certainly no regrets about giving up the economic security of tenure at The University of Texas. Our four sons are all married, and five grandkids are fun. So this 20th and last episode is an opportunity for summing up, and for me that includes some sums.
After all, the world includes two types of people: those who keep track of the numbers in their life and those who don’t. Some say the Bible’s punishment of David for ordering a census indicates that God is anti-numeric—but how could that be, since God invented numbers?
Ever since 1984, when Harper’s Magazine began publishing its monthly index, I’ve enjoyed the way it juxtaposes numbers to create what former editor Roger Hodge called “a statistical poem.” Some of the stats have been amusing: Thirty years ago Harper’s reported that Morton Downey Jr. owned 124 pairs of red socks and Garrison Keillor none. (Embarrassed confession: I’m a Boston Red Sox fan but I also own none.) Other stats were politically pointed: In 1995 six National Public Radio employees had salaries exceeding $100,000 per year, but 7,367 Department of Veterans Affairs salaries were similarly stratospheric.
Should we compile numbers? Nine chapters of the Bible report censuses: Chapters 1, 3, 4, and 26 of Numbers; the second chapters of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Luke; Chapter 5 of Acts; Chapter 24 of 2 Samuel. That last one is the only one God condemned. Joab, David’s commander, reluctantly obeyed David’s order to take a census of all Israel’s tribes from Dan to Beersheba. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say why God punished the taking of that census by sending a plague in which 70,000 men died, but it suggests David’s decision reflected pride and self-reliance.
So, if we do a count of our lives we can do so in an arrogant way or a way that points out our reliance on God. We may egoistically think that the good health we have is because of our healthy lifestyles, but the tragic incidence of cancer at times among the young should dispel that notion—and if it hasn’t, people who get to my age (68) start reading the obituary page for the death of contemporaries. All of that should remind us of Psalm 90: The years of our life are 70, or 80 if we have the strength.
I’d recommend juxtaposing numbers that reveal our sin or craziness compared with God’s mercy. In my case, the number of stores I shoplifted in as a teenager (three) with the number of times I’ve had something stolen from me (one). How about the number of bones I’ve broken (zero) with the bicycling speed I achieved (45 mph) when rushing for 7 miles downhill on U.S. 12 after crossing the Continental Divide between Montana and Idaho.
Non-bragging stats can also reveal how God has changed us. Number of months worked at my longest-lasting job before becoming a Christian: five. After becoming a Christian: 312 and counting. Number of times committing adultery before becoming a Christian: more than I care to admit publicly. Number of times committing adultery after becoming a Christian: zero.
Juxtaposed numbers help us remember difficult times. Number of miles run in one day when I was 22 and felt betrayed by a close friend: 13. Greatest number of miles I had run before that in one day: 6. Number of consecutive days my left knee ached after that: 50. Number of WORLD articles I’ve written: 3,016. Number of letters received after one article, concerning Donald Trump, written one month before his election as president: approximately 2,000.
Some say two types of people exist: those who are firmly rooted Somewhere and those who come from Everywhere. The numbers clearly indicate that I’ve been in the rootless camp. Number of states lived in for at least two months: 15. Number of places lived in for at least one month: 51. Number of places where I attended Christian services: 140. Something gained, something lost by experience many miles wide but only a few inches deep.
Overall, I am grateful to God for sparing me so much. Number of wars fought in: zero. Number of parents in my home during childhood: two. Number of long car or plane trips with Olasky children: 47, and no accidents. Number of different railroad stations where trips started or ended: 54, and no collisions. Number of boats traveled on: 78, and no sinkings. Number of different airports flown from or landed at: 188, and no crashes. Number of different locations slept in, and never having to escape from a fire: 862.
On the other hand, some big numbers are indication of futility. Number of different major league and spring training ballparks visited without ever catching a foul ball: 78. Number of countries visited without being able to have a real conversation in a language other than English: 70. Number of cities where I visited anti-poverty organizations: 148. Number of cities that were doing a good job of offering challenging, personal, and spiritual aid to the poor: very few.
Once in a while I can’t get to sleep, and that’s when the counting gets a little strange. I’ve ridden four horses and smoked four cigars. The most miles I’ve walked on a treadmill in one day: 19. Consecutive years I watched my sons playing youth baseball: 24. Number of different denominations of churches I’ve worshipped in: 35. Number of issues of WORLD Magazine edited: 1,037.
Small irritations arise at night. Number of times I batted in the sixth grade: zero, because the coach cruelly but rightly cut me from the baseball team, given my mediocrity in the game I love. Number of times the Red Sox won the World Series during my first 44 years of fandom: zero, and the deep problem of such unfairness in the world troubled me.
In recent years, though, I could think about the team’s triumphs in 2004, 2007, and 2013, and then roll over and fall asleep. Sadly, Seattle Mariners fans are still sleepless, with not even a single World Series appearance in 41 years.
The blessings far outnumber any small or large irritations. God blessed me in giving me a double bypass and other procedures with no real difficulty. Number of consecutive days last year walking at least 10,000 steps (about 5 miles): 220, which means I was never sick. Number of times in an ambulance: one, and it was a false alarm. Nor have Susan or our children had any significant health problems.
I could say I’m proud of becoming a Christian in 1976, but it was all God: He dragged me. I am proud to be an American, because at least I know I’m free. I’m proudest of being married to Susan for 42 years. My second proudest item: helping to edit WORLD for 26 years. And I can’t resist a little Texas pride: In June I made it to my 254th Texas county (out of 254).
OK, the Count from Sesame Street and I both like to count. Is that a crime? Are you a counter also, or am I just weird? No, don’t answer that.
I am very grateful to God. Thanks for reading.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.