photo: Janet Ramsden on flickr

photo: Janet Ramsden on flickr

How do you feel about numbers?

Do they scare you? Does the phrase “Solve for X” make your skin crawl and your toes sweat?

Or are you a geek who embraces the numerical world with all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning? Oh boy! Pythagorean triples and Diophantine equations! And it’s only 6 in the morning!

Whether you love numbers or hate ’em, this post is for you.

As we all know, numbers have been used for a wide variety of purposes over the years, some good, some not.

Landing on the moon. Thank you, numbers!

moon landing again done

Smart phones. Thank you, numbers!

photo: kamshots on flickr

photo: kamshots on flickr

The atom bomb. What were you thinking, numbers?

atom bomb done

But the atom bomb isn’t the only way numbers can get off track. There are smaller, more subtle ways numbers can harm us.

Take my adolescence, for example.

Then, as now, I was a card-carrying nerd. I was good at science and math and proud of it. I wasn’t into the whole social scene at my high school.

I didn’t really fit in.

Then I went to this awesome summer camp. It was called High/Scope. The camp was in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and there were kids there from all over the world. The summer session lasted eight weeks, which felt like a lifetime. In a good way.

The overall ethic of the camp was to treat everyone with respect. I suspect many of us behaved much differently in our homes and schools, but at High/Scope, we learned to behave in a loving, thoughtful manner.

It was amazing. For the first time in my adolescence, I felt embraced by my peers. 

high scope done with color

That is, until one particular day.

It was late in the afternoon, just before dinner. I was sitting with one of my fellow campers outside the dining hall, and he was telling me about a discussion they’d had the night before in the boys’ quarters.

They had been ranking the female campers on a scale of 1 to 10.

That’s right, numbers had entered the scene. And it wasn’t pretty.

He told me they had given me a 10 for personality. That was all well and good.

But then he told me they had given me a 7 for looks.

7. 

He also filled me in on the ranking of the other female campers, many of whom had received a 10 for their looks.

photo: Josef Seibel

photo: Josef Seibel

I was devastated.

Never mind that one of my rankings was a 10. It was the 7 that stung.

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure what prompted him to tell me all this. I could make a guess as to his motivation, but I really don’t know.

What I do know is how it affected me.

From that day on, I took those rankings – a 10 for personality and a 7 for looks – as permanent statements about myself. There was no questioning the validity of the numerical rankings. They were facts, descriptions of myself that were as accurate and unchanging as my left-handedness and my facility with math and science.

At least, for a few years.

Then time and growth and new perspectives entered the scene and the 7 and the 10 morphed into something much smaller, much less important.

But they’re still there – in my memory, if nothing else.

The other day, as I was meditating, the memory of those old rankings came to mind. And it struck me how ridiculous they were. But it also struck me how profoundly I had let them affect me.

There are other numbers that can have that effect on us:

The numbers in a performance review.

photo: Paul Downey on flickr

photo: Paul Downey on flickr

The numbers on a scale.

photo: puuikibeach on flickr

photo: puuikibeach on flickr

The numbers in our bank account.

photo: Betsssssy on flickr

photo: Betsssssy on flickr

All of these numbers are just that – numbers. But we insert all kinds of other meanings into them.

Low numbers in a performance review means we’ll never get ahead. A high number on the scale means we’re ugly. A low number in the bank account means we’re worthless.

In my case, I ignored the 10 and focused only on the 7. The 7 meant I was less attractive than my peers, and somehow less important.

Any time we give numbers this kind of power, we’ve moved outside of ourselves for validation. We’ve moved away from our own inner knowing and into the treacherous territory of outside assessment.

Outside assessment has its place, don’t get me wrong, but anytime we’re using it to beat ourselves up, something’s gone wrong.

So here’s to a positive use of numbers!

photo: Emran Kassim on flickr

photo: Emran Kassim on flickr

Here’s to using numbers for growth and change, but not allowing them to dictate our self-worth. Here’s to freedom from the tyranny of one rating or one ranking!

Numbers are our friends, and we can choose to use them for good, not evil.

And speaking of good numbers, there is a number that’s really important, a number you should always remember. Can you guess what it is?

One.

We’re all one. We’re all part of one big, beautiful amazing energy I call the Divine.

Quantum physicists call it the quantum field. Atheists call it Life. Whatever you call it, we’re all a part of it. And remembering this truth takes the sting out of any numerical trip we may be subjecting ourselves to.

One.

One energy, one love, one life.

Now that’s a good use of numbers!

photo: NASA Goddard on flickr

photo: NASA Goddard on flickr

Have you ever used numbers to harm yourself? How did you get free? Share your comments below!

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