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Monday, July 18, 2016


For almost as long as I can remember, I have loved numbers. Not as much as I love words, mind you, but there is a sort of magic in numbers. I will never be a mathematician; I just really love the basic math functions of add, subtract, multiply, and divide. I know enough geometry to figure out answers on the online general knowledge quizzes. Algebra, with its word problems, frustrates me. One of the first questions in my junior high school algebra had to do with the infamous Two Trains. Both trains are on the same track and headed toward one another. If one is going 30 miles per hour and the other is going 50 miles per hour, how long until they crash?

My first thought is, and has always been, that instead of figuring out how long it will be until there is a horrific accident, something should be done to prevent it. Only someone truly heartless would sit and run the numbers when people might be dying. I don't want to know when these unfortunate people will meet their doom, I want to save their lives instead. Since the Two Trains entered my world, algebra and I have not been the best of friends.

But as I said, I love the basic math functions. I still remember my excitement at learning all of the magical things involving the number nine, for example. And I still fondly recall the substitute fifth-grade teacher who had the delightful math game that we played every day. All of us stood at our desks and started counting out loud. Any student whose number contained or was a multiple of three couldn't say the number aloud. If they accidentally did, they were out and sat down. It was fast-paced and fun and we loved it.

I am fairly good at doing math on paper or in my head, and fractions and percentages don't bother me. I can walk through the grocery store with no paper or calculator and keep track of how much I am spending, even with percentages off of certain products. I am seldom surprised by the total, because I am usually pretty close in my tallies. And my tally is generally slightly higher than the eventual total, so no shock happens to us at the cash register.

Division is a math function that can do all sorts of things for us. If you and two friends dig up 87 diamonds and want to split them evenly three ways, division tells you that each will have 29 gems. Yes, someone will say that the others' diamonds are bigger, but that's just how kids people are. As the inverse of multiplication, instead of making numbers larger, division reduces the size of the number. Division always decreases the whole. While it may show us the possible components of the number, the number is nonetheless diminished.

What happens in math can in some ways be related to what happens in human societies of all types. Division takes the amazingly complex human race and diminishes it. It makes us smaller. As we apply increasing numbers of distinctions and divisors to ourselves, the wholeness is lost. There is so much division and lessening going on in the world right now that we are being driven further and further apart. What is scientifically one species is categorized to make us feel separate and different and better than or less than. 

I think that we need to start a new revolution. Instead of dividing, we should be multiplying. And no, I'm not talking about the Biblical be-fruitful-and-multiply. I'm talking about erasing the division signs that diminish us and replacing them with things that magnify us. We don't need to legislate or regulate to make this work. It happens one person, one moment, and one action at a time. We need to go back to the old tradition of looking at one another when we pass by. Instead of trying to ignore each other and shut ourselves in and keep other people out, we need to acknowledge our shared humanity. 

Nobody seems to say hello any more. What happened to how are you? When did can I reach that off the shelf for you disappear? It takes so little time and effort to see that another human is walking by you. And none of us know what is hidden beneath the facade that our eyes see. The person walking by you may be depressed, elated, lonely, or worried, or any combination of things in between. A kind word can indeed be a balm to the mind and soul in a world where we are so crowded but so alienated from one another. Try it. You may find that the light in another person's face when you treat them as a fellow human being is the greatest gift you can give to yourself.


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