Mathematics: Seeing Between the Numbers

April 26, 2008
Two plus two equals four is not as simple as it looks. In fact, within that simple equation exists the fundamental truths for everything you need to know about life. For one thing, if you solve this equation you will inevitably have to come up with some sort of logical solution. This is, in fact, how math is done; there is a problem, and you must solve it.
And this exact concept runs a parallel line with a functional life; it is just like walking into a tangle of numbers and variables inside of parentheses within parentheses and trying to make your way through the jumbled mess in the dark, just by feeling. It is being tossed into situations that are utterly, hopelessly chaotic, and having to restore some vague sense of order; breaking a sheer crisis down into smaller problems that seem easier to manage. Life, like math, is about making mistake after mistake before finding an answer of substance, only to be thrown back into the labyrinth of predicaments to face yet another set of problems, another set back, another barrier pushing you toward the starting line.
Mathematics, on the surface, may seem theoretical, but really, it teaches you to be realistic. It rests on the rigid principles of logic and proof and certainty, and this is ultimately the system on which the world operates, and one we eventually come to grips with as we grow older. The essence of math essentially establishes a straight and narrow path toward adulthood, which is where realism tends to fall on your head like an anvil.
When we are young, we tend to think optimistically; we believe in the sun and the moon and the stars, in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and Happily Ever After. We believe that we can be firefighters and ballerinas and the President of the United States. That there are no wrong answers and no stupid questions and that we can change the world, with just one voice, if we wanted to.
But then a single equation can send us crash landing back to Earth.
A single equation can draw the thick red line between a child and an adult; we learn, eventually, that dreams do not always come true, even if you work toward them your whole lives. That every potential for Happily Ever After has disintegrated into divorce papers across the country, that people can lie while looking you right in the eyes, that good people die for no good reason at all, that everything, and maybe nothing, is within your control; that you are either right, or you are wrong, you’re either black or white, male or female, In or Out, and that in life, there is no room for Almost, for Maybe, and Half-Way-There.

And this is why people hate math.
They hate it because it represents the immutable, undeniable truths of life. They hate it because math tells you that no matter what you do, no matter what method you use, no matter how long you avoid it, or how many detours of tipsy-turvy convolution you attempt to take: Two plus two will always equal four. It’s an inevitable fate, an unstoppable force, and that, is the scariest thing in the world.
These harsh realities of math and life tend to clash with the fuzzy clouds of haze in which we tend to live. Finding out, after all of this time, that the Solution to an equation is not affected by our thoughts or emotions in the least-- that our hands aren’t as powerful as we thought they were, and we’re only walking around with our eyes closed because we’re too afraid to see what will happen if we don’t—those truths seem like a profound disappointment.
It is dangling your legs over bottomless dimensions and being snatched down by the feet. It’s the leash whipping us back to a post when we’ve wandered off to far. The perfectly square box marked with red lines of precision where our boundaries lie, and an electric shock, zipping through the body, every time we dare to cross them. It’s the Work First, Play Later credo to the highest power. The stoic man with a clenched jaw who never says a word. The system of mechanisms that crunch out the exact same numbers, every single time, like clockwork. It reminds us that the world is really only two dimensional; a few hunks of dirt surrounded by water, no matter how much bigger and brighter and more important it seems.

And yet, I think we need math and its inevitabilities.
We need that unfaltering path towards the same destination. We need that Either/Or, and the laws of gravity to keep us anchored. We need civilizations, and its rules etched in stone, and the undeniable, absolute Solution to a problem--every problem. We need the truth. And we need to know that two plus two will always equal four; even if we never wanted to find out in the first place.

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