It’s the things you can’t see, measure or define that count

Those elements that makes us who we are, and that make us memorable, are attributes, like honesty, industry and compassion.

By Morf Morford

The older I get, the more I realize the importance of a guiding principle that various prophets, storytellers and wisdom-keepers across ages and cultures have known all along — and that we have somehow forgotten, or at least have imagined we could dispense with; the most important elements of any community, marketplace, family or nation are those things which cannot be defined or measured. Or even seen.

Consider any marketplace — of products, services or ideas. From appliances to vehicles to vaccines to the counting of ballots in an election, we “trust” that we will receive will be (at least approximately) what we expect.

Few of us fully understand how systems and devices actually work — but we expect them to do what they are supposed to do.

Much has been written about how “polarized” we, here in the USA and around the world are. The word “polarized” just means that, for whatever reason, many of us have (philosophically or even physically) retreated into the territory of “people who believe like I do” and abandoned the shared and public spaces we all had in common.

From schools to churches to workplaces and parks (among many others) there was a time when we freely mixed with others of different “opinions” and either accepted them or, at minimum “tolerated” them and maybe even learned a few things in our exchanges with others.

Now, of course, “opinions” (informed or not) seem to rule every conversation, blog, news show and, for better or worse, too many political decisions and laws.

As I mentioned in a previous article, researchers have observed that about 20% of the earth’s surface is (relatively) unchanging ice-caps and tundra. Or at least it should be unchanging.

That polar stability facilitates the movement of seasons and air and water currents of the remaining 80% of the earth’s surface which allows (or makes possible) agriculture which feeds us all.

In other words, one not-so-visible principle that guides (if not controls) the world is change. Agriculture and food production of all kinds relies on predictable seasons. Without the stable and reliable seasons of spring, summer and fall there would be no food.

And even winter, a time of necessary rest and restoration for earth and livestock alike, is essential.

And yet how many of us even notice the progression of seasons that literally control our lives?

On the earth, as well as within any healthy and functioning body, family or nation, it is this barely noticed, hardly visible, rarely defined, shared essence, set of forces and presence that allows us to exist.

If the earth is an indicator, (which I think it should be) about 80% of our lives should be in this dynamic, ever-changing, productive, mutual territory.

In any human marketplace (of products, ideas or services) trust, not money, is the ultimate medium of exchange.

We operate on the assumption that the product from vaccine to washing machine will do what we expect it to do.

The economist Adam Smith wrote of “the invisible hand” of the marketplace. His assumption was that a free and unfettered market would continually re-calibrate itself when it came to prices, quality and availability.

Forces like supply and demand would regulate both cost and use of virtually any good or service.

These “unseen” forces would work continually (and without human intervention) to maintain a stable and (relatively) productive economy and society.

Or consider those traits that, for most of us, define or frame a “good” or successful person; resilience, resourcefulness, patience, generosity, compassion and perhaps patience and a sense of mutual respect.

Like the passing of seasons, we may not “notice” those things, but we do see their affects.

More negative effects, like rudeness, selfishness or condescension are equally difficult to measure, but most of us know them when we encounter them.

No market or family or nation can exist without trust.

And yet it is probably the least measurable and definable characteristic out there.

One guiding principle about trust is that trustworthy are not only honest and trustworthy, they assume that everyone (or at least most others) are at least as trustworthy.

The same principle holds for those who are not honest and trustworthy — they assume that everyone (or at least most others) are as untrustworthy as they are.

In other words, those who lie and cheat take as a given that anyone (or everyone) else will, given the opportunity, will lie and cheat as well.

An old saying sums this up; fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

In other words, people may lie to or cheat us once, but after that we should be far more aware and vigilant in future encounters with that person.

Of course people can (and often do) change, and “second chances” may be life changing, but, as many of us know from direct experience, any “change” in behavior is not always consistent or reliable.

Our personal “history”, while not always binding, is, in most cases, still a defining force.

For better or worse, a person who has lied or deceived before is likely to do it again, and a person who has proven themselves reliable and trustworthy will, in most cases, also be consistent with what they have done before.

Personal transformation and rehabilitation is (almost) always a possibility, but the habits of thought and action, as every addict knows, are usually a lifelong burden.

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

— Albert Einstein

One of the odd things about life is that we very rarely see or touch anything that really matters.

Trust, feeling known or welcome, being acknowledged or appreciated are all far more “valuable” than any device or object we might be able to purchase or hold.

How many of us, for example, have longed for a new device or object of some sort, and saved for it with great anticipation and then, once we have it, the item seems to lose its charm and it becomes just another thing in our lives.

And, as we all know, being trusted, feeling known or welcome, being acknowledged or appreciated never gets old.

In an era or AI and “deep fakes” few things are more essential than the authenticity, connection and trust that is only possible from fellow human beings.

We pride ourselves on our “smart” devices and how much “data” we have access to, but what really matters, and defines us is what we want to know, what we are willing to learn and what we wonder about, not the “knowledge” we might be so proud of.

We, or at least some of us, value most of all, what we aspire and reach for, and what we may never fully know.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.

— Albert Einstein

In our all too active pursuit of the things and distractions of the world, it might be wise to recall that those elements that makes us who we are, and that make us memorable, are not things, but are attributes, like honesty, industry and compassion.

From Abe Lincoln to Pippi Longstocking and many others, it is what can’t be seen that sets us apart.