Our primal relationship with numbers

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Judging from how many articles there are out there with headlines like, “The 8 Top Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Anxiety” and, “The Only 5 Things You Need to Live a Good Life,” we appear to be in love with numbers. We just are. In fact, they almost feel built in, like numbers are simply part of who we are. They most certainly are one of the first ways we come to understand the world and begin to develop trust in what we know, which makes it downright destabilizing when our numbers don’t add up. This was so apparent on my 3.5-year-old grandson’s face a few weeks ago as he stood in our driveway (a socially responsible distance away) when our neighbor’s 3-legged cat came hopping along. I introduced Tripod, the 3-legged cat to Leo, who looked enormously confused as he said, “I thought cats had 4 legs.”
I’m seeing how numbers also anchor us in what we know on the other end of the life spectrum with my mother, who has been a resident in a memory unit for the past year*. But as we’ve watched her cognitive decline, we’ve also seen how she has recently and instinctively fallen back on numbers as a strategy to help her hang onto what she knows. In our weekly family Zoom calls, we now fully expect Mom to appear before us on the screen with her hands looming large in the foreground. “I have 6 things to tell you,” she will say, holding up 8 fingers. Somehow this juvenile misalignment is as adorable as it is heart-breaking. While Leo goes around picking up numbers, Mom goes around desperately trying to hold onto them.
We have a complicated, almost mysterious relationship with numbers. In the wellness world, “knowing your numbers,” is both vital and loaded. There is the factual meaning and then the meaning we make -- sometimes beautifully, and sometimes quite unproductively, as in my value is in the number on the scale or the number in my bank account. But because numbers seem to speak to us in some native tongue, I know there is a number-based wellbeing message personal to you in this little Wellness Wednesday ode to numbers. I don’t know what it is, but I think you’ll know it when you see it if you dig around. Here’s what I found:
“Elizabeth, invite only one single thing to do at a time onto your mountaintop.
I hope you:
  1. Have an interesting day,
  2. See something of beauty out there,
  3. And find your personal wellbeing message