Tuesday, March 11, 2014

We Sneer: "Do the Math!"

We Sneer, “Do the Math!”

It’s an insult: “Do the math.” We sneer it in a smarter-than-thou voice when the solution to a problem is so obvious that one must do only a simple calculation: 1 + 1 = 2. So, yeah, we roll our eyes, shake our heads, and say, “Do the math.”
Solve Life’s Most Vexing Problems
In many aspects of life, if we “Do the Math”—a different math—solutions to life’s most vexing problems often present themselves in rather profound ways. This math (I will not call it new math), involves much more than arithmetic. To illustrate, I share the following:
A close friend of mine died early this year. I didn’t know Kathy’s husband well, but we spoke often during the last weeks of her life, so I recently called him to see how he’s holding up. We spoke about Kathy’s memorial service, the people who attended, and his gratitude for everyone and everything they did to honor her life.
As conversations do, ours drifted and we began speaking of butterflies. Kathy loved butterflies and the symbolism inherent in them was a focus of her memorial service. Going beyond that symbolism, the conversation shifted and we discussed other aspects of butterflies, particularly monarchs. We spoke of their diminishing habitat, migration patterns, climate change, and the near-disappearance of milkweed (larvae host plants) in the Midwest due to herbicides and other farming practices. We also touched on how genetically modified crops such as Bt corn affect butterflies. We talked of gardening, extra gas cans (I need one), mulch, weeds, and native Florida landscaping.
As the phone call drew to an end, we made plans to share milkweed plants sometime in the future.
The next morning, I realized that the last part of our conversation wasn’t focused on illness, loss, and grief. I realized we forgot death, mourning, and sorrow—if only for a short while. We did the math.
Doing the Math
This is how you do the math.
Two months after my seven-year-old daughter Alexa died from brain cancer on November 2, 1986, I took a college-level math class. I don’t recall why I chose math or that time to take a class. I wanted to go work on my degree and I needed a math credit, but the timing and the subject are rather odd in retrospect.
Doing the math has always been hard—really hard—for me. Ask me to write, edit, grow certain plants, or turn flour, yeast, oil, water, and few other ingredients into bread and I’m all in. Ask me to do a calculation and I break out in a sweat. Math has always been a struggle. For whatever reason, I took a math class. I knew it would be hard, but I’d already done the hardest thing imaginable. I had watched my precious child die.
The class was held at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida, on Mondays from 7 to 10 p.m. I sat in the first row on the far-right of the room, a few seats from the front. I knew from previous math classes that I’d have to pay attention, that I couldn’t miss a word from the professor, or I would be lost. During the break, I kept to myself. I was still raw and I wanted to be anonymous in the class. I didn’t talk to anyone about myself, my life, or my recent experiences.
I strive for A’s and generally do whatever it takes to get them. So during that first class, I focused. I listened. I took notes. I copied every problem and every detail of its solution from the board. At the end of that first class, as I walked to my car, I realized that for three hours, I was not consumed with grief, with longing, with sorrow. I did the math. I did only the math.
Doing the math relaxed me. Doing the math took my mind off the parts of my life that were simply too much to bear. Doing the math turned off my emotions for three hours.
The math continued to be hard. To keep up, I studied night after night. I did calculations on repeat, trying to imprint formulas and methods into my brain. I wrote and rewrote equations. I erased errors until my notebook paper was riddled with holes and then I copied my homework—again. I did permutations and combinations. I used my Texas Instruments TI-36 solar calculator into the evening, placing it beneath a bright lamp to keep the digital numbers lit.
I got my A. It took 15 hours of study each week for a 3-hour class. I also got part of my psyche back—the part of me that saw problems, worked on solutions until I found them, and completed those problems. For 18 months preceding that class, I lived in a world of a problem illness that had no solution. In that world, nothing made sense. Nothing computed on the most primal emotional level.
I entered a world that made sense for 3 hours a week (plus the 15I spent studying) and it saved me. Doing the math pulled me out of the deepest depression and sorrow I ever experienced. Those 18 hours a week still left 150 hours in which to process my grief, get accustomed to a different life, and continue to work through the mourning process, but those 18 helped me function in those 150 hours.
I remained anonymous in the class. I spoke only briefly and on superficial levels with my classmates. I believe that having those three hours a week when I was not the grieving mother helped heal my psyche. I was just another student. I needed that to define me rather than what I had experienced before that first class and continued to experience outside the class.
Looking back, I know that I “Did the math.” Having lived through much loss and sadness in my life, I also know that the grieving process is not to be ignored. Grieving is important, and each of us proceeds through mourning in our own way and in our own time. However, to save our lives, to keep our own precious lives worth living, I also know that sometimes we have to step away from grief. We have to step away from mourning. Sometimes we have to “Do the math.”
I did the math and it saved my life. A year or so after the class ended, I happened to see the professor in the Publix parking lot. She recognized me and we spoke briefly. I told her that I enjoyed the class, but that it was quite difficult for me. She said, “Oh, but you did so well. You’re really good at math.” If she only knew . . .

How to Help Someone Do the Math
1.  Grief and the process of mourning are important for healing after any loss. Grief and its process have no timetable. Give yourself and your loved ones the time to experience that process.
2.  Even while honoring the mourning process, it helps healing to step away from grief—to relax your emotions, to give your psyche a rest. This can take several forms: renewing or beginning an interest in art of any form, music, writing, painting; exercise, travel; exploring a new hobby; taking a class—even a math class.
3.  Support groups often provide valuable assistance to those in mourning. I mention only two here because I am familiar with them. Most churches, synagogues, and other religious groups have grief support groups. A quick Google search can help you find church-affiliated and non-church-affiliated support groups in your area.
Compassionate Friends is a well-known support group for bereaved parents. Their web site is https://www.compassionatefriends.org/home.aspx
Share is a group to help with pregnancy and infant loss. Their web site is http://www.nationalshare.org.
4.  If someone’s grief is debilitating and ongoing, and support groups have not helped the healing process, a consultation with a qualified therapist could help ease the grieving person’s transition. If you or someone you know is struggling, I encourage therapeutic help.

These suggestions may seem trite in the overall experience of grief, but they aren’t. Taking a break—mental, physical, emotional—from the mourning process can and does relieve the pressure of overwhelming sorrow.
We grieve loss because life is so wonderful, so important. At times, it is right and healthy to honor and cherish our own lives. It’s a good thing to “Do the Math.”

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