A “measure of excellence” is a metric of comparison. Measures of excellence are what we use to say that one person is “better” than another. Money is another measure of excellence. In fact, beauty (for women) and money (for men) are the two historically dominant measures of excellence (at least, that’s the case in the history we tell each other today).
In ancient times (1991, that is) there was a popular computer game called Civilization. You, the player, guided a civilization from 4000 BC to AD 2020. In the game there were two paths to victory. The first was to destroy all of the other civilizations and become the ruler of the world. This is a typical victory condition in gaming — defeat all your opponents and you win. The second path to victory was to be the first civilization to build a spaceship and colonize another planet. This was pretty innovative — in the combat-dominated gaming ecosystem of the day, Civilization provided the player with a peaceful, “enlightened” alternative.
To stretch this into a metaphor about feminism and measures of excellence, the “enlightened” alternative feminine measure of excellence is traditionally intelligence. This advancement allowed smart girls to feel some of the smug superiority that beautiful girls had been enjoying and exploiting for millenia. Now you’ve got a three-faction game where the smart girls could call the beautiful ones shallow, the beautiful girls could continue to ignore the smart ones, and the rest of the girls could vie for “nice” (or “sweet spirit”, in Mormon parlance — it’s kind of the door prize).
So while this is something of an improvement, it’s still got some pretty major problems. First off, intelligence, like beauty, isn’t evenly distributed. Intelligent people don’t deserve their intelligence any more than beautiful people deserve their looks. It’s all kind of part of the spiritugenetic lottery. Introducing a second measure of excellence into the system didn’t fix the system, but it did improve life for some players in the system.
Fortunately, in 2001 Civilization 3 was released (Civilization 2 was released in 1996, for those of you keeping track). Where the original Civilization had two win conditions (defeating the opponents or winning the space race, remember?), the new Civilization game had six win conditions! You could win through diplomatically uniting the nations, through establishing the most enduring culture, through controlling the most land, etc.
Suddenly the system was broken wide open. Rather than having their measures of excellence dictated to them, men and women began to discover that they could define their own terms of victory. So you’re neither cute nor smart? That’s okay, because you can be:
or even more specifically,
- an animal lover
- the Frank Herbert fan
- an early-morning mall walker
- the friend who hosts movie night
- a darn good cake decorator
Most importantly, you get to be in charge of which measures of excellence you recognize as valid. This is the inversion that breaks the system — it’s the switch from object to subject, from actor to author.
So here’s my gospel connection. A while back I wrote this post on a monastery for families, and it received this comment, with its great quote from Victor Hugo. I’ve thought a lot about those “veiled beings in the shadow below weep, their sides bruised with the hair shirt and their iron-tipped scourges, their breasts crushed with wicker hurdles, their knees excoriated with prayer”. Who are they, and what are they doing there? They exist not solely in the Spanish cathedrals; their spiritual brothers and sisters inhabit the meeting houses of every religion. They represent all that disgusts me in religion — the uncalled for and needless sacrifice and suffering it imposes on believers.
But, if I wonder long enough to look through their eyes, there’s something more than that. They are ones who have chosen their own measure of excellence — neither beauty nor wit, but suffering. They can suffer better than any of the rest of us, and that is a consolation and an identity.