By the Numbers

A brief “by the numbers” begins, of course, with one. Back when I could understand the lyrics of songs (understand in the sense of hear, not comprehend), we had Three Dog Night and “One” and its inexplicable “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” Beware: The melody causes an earworm. The One Ring to Rule Them All creates havoc in The Lord of the Rings, what with the constant and evil desires trying to get and keep it. Finally, we have the Unified Field Theory, the one comprehensive explanation of the universe. Another name is ToE, or Theory of Everything. Blessedly, there isn’t such a thing, and its lack gives me hope that more can be done in science, and everything else.

If one is serious and lonely, two seems amusing, if cynical. An old joke goes like this: There are two kinds of people in the world—people who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don’t. This set of illustrations is newer and funnier. My favorite of this subset comes from an old friend who years ago taught us that there are two kinds of skylights, those that leak and those that don’t leak yet. A certain Zen comes with these examples of twoness. Because we know that Zen is a school of Buddhism, we associate it also with calmness; however, the PIE root means “to see, look.” Observation, then, leads to wisdom and peace, if you can avoid sarcasm.

Three is a profound number. A triangle, the most stable shape, forms the basis for much construction. The iconic Sydney Opera House uses spherical triangles in its unique design, the mathematics of which challenged the builders until they were peeling an orange one day. I have two sets of three things that form not a physical but a mental basis: three motivations and three parts of being. A friend who is much more comfortable with her wisdom than most stated that only three things motivate us: fear, duty, and love. This contrasts with many other models, of course, including the famous Maslow’s pyramid which began with five needs that prompt action (physiological, safety, love, esteem, self-actualization) but that was expanded several times. It’s been my experience that fear motivates only briefly. After a disaster, we plan to make changes but often fail to follow through once the adrenaline abates. Duty gets us through most days. We go to work, school, the gym, because we have to even if we often love the results of what we are doing. Zig Ziglar said, “Duty makes us do things well, but love makes us do them beautifully.” Ideally, we can do most things with love, but that takes more than motivation. On one hand, I believe people only do what they want to do, regardless of what someone else asks them to do (look up passive-aggression); on the other, what relief and joy come when I can do something out of love.

The next set of three has to do with our beings. We are creatures with bodies, minds, and spirits. Religion explains, but these days other means can do so as well. Regardless, all three need nourishment. An apple a day, learning something new each day—each in its way betters our lives. John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker poet and abolitionist, famously encouraged the selling of our second loaf of bread and using the proceeds “to buy hyacinths for the soul.” Bread is wonderful, perhaps too much so fresh out of the oven with a bit of butter, but the transcendent scent of a hyacinth, its rich color and shape, and the simplicity of its culture on our windowsill do much for our hungry souls. Another sort of nourishment—an act of service to another—likewise feeds our souls and can alleviate even our physical pain. I’ve seen it done.

Yes, there are more numbers, but I see that their inclusion would take too much time and space. Another post perhaps…4 to ∞.