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Personal Essay: “The Safety in Numbers”

I find that there is a strange comfort, yes even a safety in numbers. There is a security in knowing that a number always has a certain value and that when you combine them in different ways with other numbers there is always one right answer to their combined worth. Subtracting, multiplying, dividing, there is always one right way to do it and if you do it right you always end up with the right answer in the end. Two plus two always means four and multiplying six with four always results in twenty-four. Numbers are solid, they’re safe and certain.

Though words were my original friends, numbers became a familiar feature of my life as well when I started school. I could easily see the use in learning how the ways of numbers worked. With just a bit of practice I could figure out how to manage my allowance, how long I would have to save it up to afford something I wanted and how much candy I could get from a tenner. Numbers became a key to understanding my family’s finances, and that certain things had a very real value, which was why I could not have all the things other kids had.

I cannot be certain now whether I actually did have a knack for numbers, but I do not remember having much trouble at all with them until I began to attend high school and the really complicated math began to rear its head. But even then there was still a solid structure to how it worked. Even when the numbers I was to divide and multiply got longer and more complicated, it just took a little more time before I could understand the solid step by step instructions on how to solve the problems. The first time I got it right, when I multiplied some silly number including decimals or divided one huge number with another large one, I felt a slight rush. Every time I solved a complicated problem without too much difficulty I felt like I had climbed a tall mountain, with only the rules and regulations of math as my safety gear. Again and again I conquered something that looked ridiculously complicated and when I could also present how I had come to this elegant solution I felt ridiculously clever.

As long as there was just this one way of solving a math problem, and as long as I could understand the rules, then I was all aboard. Which was a good thing, as this more complex math began to sneak itself into other subjects. There were equations in chemistry and also in physics, new ways to combine numbers to achieve certain results, using constants that always had one value. In these subjects, particularly chemistry I could see how my math calculations would have a real life result, something way beyond the simplicity of my previous calculations on how many pieces of gum I could get with a twenty crown bill and this helped a lot. Even when the other areas of the class seemed difficult or hard to wrap my head around, the equations were there as a constant, as something never changing. There was only one right way to calculate something’s mass, if you knew certain other things about the situation. There was always this one way of finding out how much to add of a certain acid to get a desired final end result in your beaker. When the liquid turned the neutral color, as you had already anticipated, you felt immensely clever.

When English class was reduced to a drag, when I felt I knew that language better than the teacher, it was the equations and the numbers that offered any kind of mental challenge to me. They tugged and pulled at my brain, encouraging it to develop new neural pathways and become more efficient. When the social interactions with my class became as unpredictable as a chemical solution I did not know the exact content of, the numbers became a security. I could always count on them to remain the same. It was only when physics began to abandon the set numbers, the precise equations, the mass and the knowledge of matter, sound and electricity that I began to falter. When we entered the realm of theoretical physics, relativity theory and the like, I suddenly found myself without anything solid to hold onto. I began to drift away.

As I entered college my relationship with numbers remained the same, though they now took a backseat to chemistry and biology. The area of chemistry, physical chemistry, where almost everything was based around equations became almost too simple; I recall that we even had an open book exam. Though I must admit I enjoyed making those fireworks during a lab.

When the equations lost their connection with the rest of the subject, that was when I faltered again, but when the theory turned into a muddy field the sessions with equations that helped explain much of the muck and mud. I trudged on, even when my brain felt overwhelmed.

With time I must admit that I began to rely a bit too much on my calculator, I became lazy, even when the problems were rather simple. After I left college, math’s role in my life became even more reduced, only sometimes did I even need the numbers, when I had to balance my monthly budget or if I just wanted to know how much all the groceries in my cart added up to.

After some time I became fearful, afraid that I had pushed the numbers too far out of my life. I worried that my brain would begin to erode, with the simple job that I had, which didn’t require much in the way of thinking. But the question was how to bring numbers back into my life in a form that I could do most every day?

The answer in the end was as simple as those early introductions to math when I was little. The Sudoku craze had long since begun to die down when I fully embraced that particular number puzzle, but it is something I keep on doing on a regular basis. Just like the math of my younger years they have a set form, with just one right solution. You always know right away if you got something wrong, sometimes early enough that you can backpedal and correct your mistake.

Though there is nothing that really supports the idea of one side of the brain being more creative and the other being more logical, I do feel that the inclusion of a regular numerical challenge ensures that all of my brain gets a good workout every day. And they do say that exercise; any exercise can help your creative process.

Even when I have my moments when I feel creatively stumped, when a plot needs some serious tweaking or a character doesn’t behave the way I intended or if I just feel a bit down and out of it I can still fall back on my Sudoku puzzles.

I can always return to my safety in numbers.

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