The Measure of a Man


June 26, 2018

I am apparently blessed (or cursed) with the sort of face and personality that makes others comfortable opening up to me. While this trait makes for some occasionally awkward conversation (like that time the coworker I barely knew started the conversation with, “Can I ask you something?… My husband and I are swingers…”), more often it allows me a perspective into others’ psyches that presumably few people are given. Today was one of those days.

A fellow I know was telling me about an interview process through which he was going, and he mentioned that the lady doing the psychological testing, which included IQ testing, told him he was quite intelligent. His response to her? “Tell me something I don’t already know, lady.”

He then proceeded to acknowledge the fact that he is arrogant and that he believes his intelligence makes him better than everyone who is not as smart as he is.

“Can you honestly tell me that you don’t think you’re better than stupid people?” he asked.

This is the point at which the conversation got meaty and really spawned some thought on my part because, of course, I don’t think I’m better than someone whose IQ is less than mine.

Now for some pertinent back story… This acquaintance of mine lives in a rural area of Tennessee and works as a janitor at a rest area. The job he’s applying for is in law enforcement. While I think he has a high school diploma, he certainly has no formal education beyond that. He doesn’t do community service, nor does he go out of his way to help people. As a matter of fact, he is a self-proclaimed misanthrope (his word, not mine). I don’t know what his IQ turned out to be, but I can’t say that I’ve been overly impressed with his intellect. In fairness, I haven’t been underwhelmed with it either.

So, it was with the introduction of that question that I really began to think about the value of a human. If we put aside the idea of the inherent value of human life itself, which eliminates the question of whether a viable fetus or a person who is unresponsive on long term life support has any inherent value, we can examine the question of what gives a person worth. (Yes, I know this is hard to do, but we’re just talking about a concept here. Bear with me.)

By some people’s measurement, this janitor who had started the wheels turning today might have a hard time proving his worth despite whatever intelligence he has. For what good is intellect wasted on tasks that do not require it? Certainly, though, to his father and his girlfriend his worth is limitless.

By contrast, an emergency room physician might be perceived to have a great deal of value. Some families whose loved ones she had saved might think that doctor was priceless. Others whose beloved was lost might believe the doctor to be a complete waste of air. I think it’s fair to say, though, that many people’s knee jerk reaction would be to say that the doctor would be “better than” the janitor — that the doctor has more inherent worth.

What about that bag boy at Publix who struggles intellectually but has a heart the size of Texas, whose smile is endless and his joy for life contagious? How many people’s days does his verve brighten? How does one put a value on that?

So how do we weigh a person’s worth? Intellect? Contribution to the community? The number of people whose lives would be negatively impacted by that person’s death? Money contributed to the economy? Inventions created?

While I’m sure someone could create an algorithm that would use every conceivable factor and assign it a number and a sliding scale based on degree of contribution, not even that would be accurate. No one can assign a number to the way another’s presence calms one’s soul, the way a smile draws them from moments of darkness, a life-altering lesson learned from a chance encounter.

I think the most important things a person gives can’t be named, much less measured. If they can’t be measured, a value certainly cannot be assigned.

So, no, I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I just have different things to offer. Maybe one of those things is a new perspective for a certain janitor I know.