At one time or many throughout our lives we ask ourselves a question – why are we here? I wish I tracked and recorded my thoughts in all the times it has occurred for me. Perhaps like you, my answers have spanned a spectrum; from learning to love unconditionally, finding a purpose, and when I was a small boy, becoming a fireman. Some ideas have left. I decided to leave fighting fires to those bigger and braver, but the burning desire to understand my journey still kindled a flickering flame to send me searching. Where to look was the first task. Weaved in the layers of the olive branch of spirituality? Under the philosophers’ stone perhaps, or was the answer elsewhere?
Of course, nothing and no one is perfect and our shadows have an annoying habit of creating new ways to shake our faith in whatever we believe. As enemies appeared I would take them on, one at a time, sometimes two or three in one go. Vanquishing these fears was tough and although I don’t want to brag, it goes without saying that I was pretty heroic. Just as I thought I was making progress a road block obstructed my path. Just how long do I have here to find this truth?
It’s tough running this race of life when you don’t know if our time here will be endurance or a sprint. Ultimately, we can only put off today to do tomorrow for only so long. One day, tomorrow won’t arrive. Stubborn problems merit a special approach. Some call it ‘thinking outside the box,’ but for me it’s ‘dwelling within the circle,’ because no matter what we believe, we are all included in this journey. More alike than different, all paths take us to our death and home.
William Deming said, “In God we trust—all others, bring data.” His words seemed like the perfect place to start to my ‘how long do I have’ dilemma, as there is no shortage of statistics to fill the void. There are already algorithms, which predict life expectancy which include factors such as poverty, habits, exercise, geographic location, hobbies (stamp collecting is safer than skydiving), occupation and stress. Genetics is another factor and progress is well on the way to map our genes to forecast in the family factor. I’m unsure how they would account for the human silliness dynamic, like looking at your phone when crossing the road, but my circle analogy and a zero look very much alike, so it seemed like the perfect place to start.
Looking at the world we live in, we might add, ‘…and lots of it…’ to the end of Deming’s quote, for we are overwhelmed with numbers on every aspect of our lives and living. Could the answer be as simple as a mathematical formula? Time to check it out.
The numbers day begins with the alarm clock sounding. Breakfast, we are told is the one meal not to skip, and although I distinctly remember growing up eating food it’s now all about the numbers. One glance at a cereal packet reveals a long list of unpronounceable ingredients written in an alien sounding tongue, along with the percentage breakdowns advising various intakes of fat, vitamins and the dreaded C word—calories. After a bowl of 200 I open the morning paper which reports a new study by the Cass Business School at City University in London. After two decades of research it reports that the Body Mass Index (BMI) cannot be relied upon because it doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle. It says to keep your waist circumference to less than half your height. Worse, it says a waist to height ratio of 80% or more could reduce life expectancy by up to 20 years. Not good news for my search!
Turning the page, unemployment is up, the stock market is down and the weather forecast reports a mostly sunny morning with a 60% chance of rain between 3pm and 6pm. Reaching the car, the fuel gauge reads close to empty, but the manufacture says it gets 30 miles to the gallon so I should be able to wait until after work to fill up. I spend the journey glued to the speedometer driving at the optimum speed to conserve fuel as described in my car handbook. At work, my boss wants a spreadsheet with the latest profit figures with a presentation of why the low numbers are very good news.
After locating the best priced gas on the way home I pick up the mail and head indoors. One is an advert telling me I have won a holiday (apparently a one in a million chance) and my car insurance informing me my rate will be going up. According to their analysis men in my age group living with a 5 mile radius of my home have a higher rate of claims. Pondering whether to move, I scan my social media. Two new friends on Facebook, a couple of new likes and four retweets are welcome news. At dinner, the kids relay their latest grade point averages and how they would be much smarter if ‘someone’ bought them the latest iphone. I am distracted, wondering if I have drunk the recommended number of glasses of water for the day.
Turning on the news, the cost of living is up as is the cost of dying. A government spokesperson argues that the latest negative opinion polls on their job performance don’t reflect what they have been hearing. Apparently, they have proof that numbers aren’t everything. Switching to the History channel, it says Plato, the Philosopher and Mathematician, had, “Let no one ignorant of Mathematics enter here,” written above the entrance to his academy, and the average life expectancy in the Bronze Age was only 26. Finally some good news about life expectancy! It’s been a long day, but thankfully no longer than 24 hours. Turning off the TV it’s time to set the alarm and jump into bed. Got to get those recommended 8 hours in. And if by chance I can’t snooze, I know I can always count sheep!
Ok, maybe a little oversimplification, but you get where I’m going. Our thirst for data has reached epidemic proportions and shows no evidence of slowing down, because we are sold that statistics add credibility. What isn’t shared so often is that results change as the measurement system is altered and that like money, data has no worth except the value we attribute to it.
When a baby is 10 weeks old they begin to laugh. At 16 weeks it happens about once an hour, and at 4 years they giggle every 4 minutes. And adults? A measly 15 times a day. Before we learn to count we discover joy, in smiles and laughter, with not a number in sight. Perhaps it’s a signpost of where our true treasures are located. If there is a peace to be found it’s hiding behind the barriers we raise, what we make up, and whatever we give value and meaning.
And me? I settled on my solution. I am right behind Deming’s quote. I trust in God, that if I create space I will hear the voice that will reveal my answers and my path. I don’t know how long I have—I don’t need to, because I did the math and I have today. The root of the word mathematics comes from the Greek, meaning, ‘to learn’ and I hope to continue to find joy and laughter when the figures don’t add up. To learn to take care of the only number that really matters—to count my blessings.