The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man

Pentecost 61


I have a friend who collects measuring tapes.  Actually, he just has quite a few of them.  This collection is not historical nor is there any special meaning attached to them other than being devices for measuring.  My friend is a statistician and his profession of measuring things is more than a vocation, it is a manner of living.


The measuring tape has an interesting history.  While the earliest of beings probably measured things, the Greeks are the culture that history denotes as giving us a standard of sorts for measuring.  They utilized what they had on hand or rather, on body.  Since most people had a standard body, it was the body that was the first measuring tool.  A foot was considered a standard measurement although the feet of the ancient Greeks were not the same size as the feet of modern man.  An inch was not one-twelfth of a foot as it is today but was the width of a person’s thumb.


Tracing the feet of twelve people you know will illustrate why mankind sought a more uniform measuring system.  Records note that a man was extradited to the penal colony of Australia in 1839 for stealing a tape measure.  Charles White was transported to New South Wales after having been tried at the Oxford Court of Sessions.   The ship known as “Portsea” sailed on 24 July 1838 from Plymouth, bound for New South Wales with the tape measure thief aboard.


The accuracy of this story is in doubt, especially since the first patent for a spring-loaded tape measure was not issued until 1868 and given to Connecticut A. J. Fellows.  The Romans had developed a leather strap with measurement lines on it and there are documents that indicate it was kept rolled up.  A British museum claims to have the actual tape measure stolen by Charles White although no indication is given as to whether it returns to its original roll with assistance or without as Fellows’ tape measure would do.


Just the mere hint at this historical conundrum is something we might not expect from the lowly tape measure.  We use such devices every day and yet, often they are overlooked.  My friend likes to know what is what, he says, and gives this as the reason for having such a collection.  He is quick to note that he assigns no judgment to his measuring; he simply “likes to know the truth of things”.


If we think about how the Greeks measured, using a foot and the width of a thumb, then it is easy to understand diversity of things.  A person wanting a table for eating would expect it to be thirty inches from floor to table top as this is a standard height for dining tables.  Chairs usually have a seat cushion which is twenty-four inches from the floor.   Using my friend’s thumb as a measuring tool compared to my own would result in a difference of two tables that is almost a foot – a modern-day foot in difference of height!  His chair cushion would be as high as my table.  If someone purchased his chair to go with my table, the result would be comical and not very comfortable.


It is easy to see why we need measuring tools and yet, should we have such for measuring each other?  What are the standards we use in arriving at an opinion or in determining who matters and should receive attention, assistance, allocations?  What is the measure of a person?  Martin Luther King, Jr believed “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”


The actor Sidney Poitier wrote a book entitled “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography”.  In it he gave us some profound measuring tools.  “You don’t have to become something you’re not to be better than you were.”  He encouraged people to view themselves for who they wanted to be and then make that vision a reality.  “We’re all somewhat courageous, and we’re all considerably cowardly. We’re all imperfect, and life is simply a perpetual, unending struggle against those imperfections.”


My friend’s collection of measuring tapes includes a few that a battered and two that no longer wind themselves back up.  Once I asked why he did not simply get rid of those and he replied:  “Their function is still there; they still measure up.”  I love that perfection is not a standard of measurement for my friend.  I love that he sees the value and not only the outside covering.  The true measure of a man or woman is how he/she makes others feel and where his/her heart is.  Whether tall or short, rich or poor, we all can contribute and make this world a better place.  As long as we are helping each other, we will always have measure and that will tell us how to move forward in our living.


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