Numbers are all around us. They are coded into our lives. They contain fascinating patterns and relationships. They describe constant phenomena in every culture and language. Numbers afford a means of articulating beauty, and counting the blessings of the world we live in.
How We Count –
In our primary school years we discover that numbers can be used in different ways. We learn about cardinal numbers, that tell us how many items there are. For example, “Sue has 5 children”. We learn about ordinal numbers, that describe what position an item is in. “Juan is the fourth child.” And we learn about nominal numbers, that name a particular item. “Hasan rides Bus #4 home from school.”
When Numbers Create Groups –
Just as when we were younger, we still frequently use numbers to group ourselves with our peers. We use numbers to align ourselves with people that are similar to us. In school, we have grade levels. In running clubs, there are pace groups. Most of our closest friends are similar to us by age. Because early on we learned that numbers are used to group similar items. Numbers can bring us together.
When Numbers Create Lines –
Eventually, much of our counting moves to comparing. The question of ‘how many?’ becomes ‘how many more than?’ Instead of seeing similarities, we notice differences. We begin contrasting. Ranking. Creating a pecking order. Shifting from groups to number lines. Instead of being ‘equal to’, we become ‘greater than’, or ‘less than’. We have moved to an ordinal counting system that sorts us in relationship to our peers. We’ve created a number line that ranks us as humans.
Who earns more money than I do?
Who runs faster?
Who has more followers?
Who has a higher ACT score?
Who sold more books?
This comparison is a trap. It saps our energy and steals our joy. It creates a constant measuring system that reduces us down to decimals and ratios, averages and rankings. When we use an ordinal counting system to describe our lives, these numbers no longer group us as people; they divide us products.
When Numbers Create Labels
Numbers are used to assign values. They set prices. They describe earnings. They count costs. But often times these values morph into labels. Statuses. Castes. Higher income is equated with greater status. Steeper price tags are associated with greater cache. As if higher earnings correlated greater happiness. As if more expensive items brought greater self satisfaction.
While numbers may be a satisfactory way to descibe market value, they do a poor job at describing transcendant value. Is what your job pays you really what your work is truly worth? Can we really put a price on a soldier who is daily prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice? Can we really define the worth of a parent who yields their passions, their pride, their energies, and their identities to raising their children? Is the value of a teacher really defined by their salary, or by the generational impact they have on the multitude of hearts and minds they reach?
The truth is that while we are comparable, we are also unique, and these facets are interwoven. I keep in contact with dozens of people across the globe who wear the title of writer. Some have published numerous books. Others host a blog. Others have yet to publish. But we all write.
I meet in a training group with hundreds of others each week. We are comparable in that we are dedicated runners. We define ourselves as such. But we split into pace groups. We further divide into mileage groups. And within each group, we are training for different races. For different reasons. With varying goals.
So a number line doesn’t really do us justice. We are the same, but we are also different. Perhaps a better descriptor would be a spectrum. When we look at colors, we describe them on a spectrum, or a wheel. While we may prefer some over others, there is not an inherent valuation of one color over another. I enjoy turquoise, but violet also has it’s own beauty. I find lime to be a peaceful color, but my life would be less delicious if it weren’t for chocolate. Amber is warming, and safety orange brings the needed attention when I’m running at dusk. When I employ a spectrum, I enjoy the comparable uniqueness of colors or colleagues. Friends or family. Acquaintances or ancestors. Because what really counts, usually can’t be counted.
Counting Without Numbers
So I’ve come to understand that I hate numbers when they are used to define me. When they are used to tell me who I am greater than, and who I am less than. When they are used to tell me what I am worth. Or what I am not worth.
I love numbers when they are used to direct me. To challenge me. To stimulate me to push my limits. To celebrate my growth.
While numbers may be infinite, the valuation of people and life is beyond numerical limits. We are more than products. We are also ever-changing variables; capable of inifinite possibilities; multiplying kindness and producing paths to solve our divisions and celebrate our differences.
Numberless, we are able to count what really matters.
Numberless, we are free to pursue the sum of our meaning.
Numberless, we can find joy in our equivalent uniqueness.
I’m participating in the A to Z blogging challenge this month. Today is the letter C.