The Numbers Game

Photo by Tyler Easton on

Life is a numbers game. What are the odds, and what are the risks? Does it matter? I have to play the game, calculate the risks, and get on with it. There’s no other choice. I can’t back out now. The day I was conceived was the day I entered the arena, and choice had nothing to do with that.

Wow, that’s a cheery thought, but what was the statistical probability that the day would start any other way? That’s a thinker for ya.

I have a love/hate relationship with numbers. I’m horrible at math, and I wasn’t born with the numerical gene. Some people are brilliant, and numbers make so much sense. They absorb the formulas and calculations through the process of osmosis. It’s easy for them, and they seem baffled when numerically challenged people, like myself, don’t get it.

When I was a kid, I kind of understood what the teachers were saying and found it somewhat intriguing. I could solve the problem, but only using a formula that I whimsically designed. Their way was too convoluted. It didn’t make sense to me, so I came up with my own. It didn’t matter that my answers were correct because I didn’t find them the right way.

After a while, I lost interest, and my flirtation with math ended. If we can’t love each other as we are, then I’m afraid our relationship was never meant to be. Or something like that. Either way, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t able to crunch the numbers, and those numbers didn’t want to be crunched. 

The problem is, I’ve always been too creative for my own good. If the problem can’t be solved by the established logic of the collective, then why not create a new brand way of thinking? Preferably outside of the collective because a hive mind is narrow and noisy.

Too much buzzing for my liking.

In high school, to graduate, I needed to pass at least one math class because our education system is sadistic. It doesn’t matter that some of us aren’t programmed to process numerical and scientific data. It doesn’t matter how hard the teachers work. The information won’t be understood, and that means we can’t translate the data onto a standardized test.

Thankfully, they offered a class that was a much simpler offshoot. At least, that’s what I was promised, but my skills were kindly overestimated. I appreciate the sentiment, but practically speaking, it wasn’t all that helpful.

Instead of algebra, I took accounting to appease the graduation overlords. Perfect! All I have to do is take those numbers and put them into a ledger? Even I can do that! It turns out there’s a bit more to it, but there is some good news. I was kind of good at it.

If, and here’s the caveat, I got a job cooking the books for a nefarious organization. Apparently, you can’t just create random accounts if you don’t know where to put the money or you’re struggling to balance the books. That’s some sort of crime? But I gave it a neat name and colour coded it with something happy. If I put unicorn stickers next to the columns, would that help? At least, the numbers line up neatly, and I did create order out of chaos.

I passed the class because I made the teacher laugh, and she gave me bonus points for creativity. If we went strictly by the numbers, then I would’ve failed or, worse, ended up in prison. Suffice it to say, I never pursued accounting as a profession because I look horrible in orange jumpsuits. And, I don’t think my disposition is suited for a life behind bars or a life of crime. 

I feel guilty every time I go over the speed limit, and I’m still haunted by that petty candy theft. I was 8, I think, and we were visiting my grandparents. We went to the corner store for milk and I stole a gum-ball on a whim. We’d barely left the store when I was overcome by guilt. I ran back in and gave my tearful confession. The shopkeeper let me keep the gum, and threw in a chocolate bar because I was an emotional wreck.

Based solely on my academic career, and influenced my emotional predispositions, I don’t like numbers or mathematics. Oddly enough, though, it’s the one area my OCD loves to tickle. By the way, I’m not using OCD in the colloquial sense. It’s not something I’m saying to exaggerate my point and it’s not a humorous jab. I have a clinical diagnosis, and it stems from complex post-traumatic stress. 

When they told me that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, I thought they were wrong because I don’t turn the lights on and off a certain number of times. I don’t jiggle the door handle or whatever other tropes we see on tv. In my case, for the most part, I experience obsessive thoughts rather than actions.

I focus on a single thought or problem and replay it over and over again. It’s like one of those old records catching on a scratch. For me, my thoughts usually focus on numbers, and I can’t stop doing the math. It can be calorie counting, and all I do is add up the numbers in my food. It can be the number of followers and readers on this blog. It can be the statistics surrounding Covid, and I’m not sure if those numbers are reassuring or terrifying.

Lately, my mind has been focusing on my finances. I can’t stop calculating how much is coming in versus going out. I run the numbers over and over. I can’t stop doing it! It doesn’t matter how they add up. It’s like my brain is looking for a problem, for trouble, and it won’t stop until it finds something. But what if there’s nothing there? Does it matter?

Not really because it feels like this thing in my brain wants to find something, anything, so it digs and digs. It turns over the loose soil and sends a cloud of dust up into the air. I can’t see, I can’t breathe, and I can’t focus on anything else. It’s exhausting, and physically I’m starting to feel ill.

Actually, I stayed home today because the exhaustion has made me sick. The stress is adding up, and my body just can’t function right now. It could also be a resurgence of my Covid symptoms. I had the damn virus three months ago, but it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Just when I start to feel human again, it taps me on the shoulder and wags its finger. I think it tsk’d me, which is incredibly condescending.

I did say that I have a love/hate relationship with numbers. So far, I’ve only talked about the negatives, and that’s because, right now, the negatives are overwhelming everything else. I’m hoping if I say it out loud, it will lose some of its power. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but it’s in that wishful thinking that I find some comfort in the numerical order.

We live in a world of uncertainties and a degree of lawlessness. Should we go so far as to call it abject chaos? If so, numbers bring some semblance of orderliness, disciple, and decorum. There are so many things that are open to interpretation, subject to bias, and left to the imagination. But knowing that 2+2= 4 and 6 multiplied by itself = 36, is a stable compound when so many fundamental elements crumble.

There is comfort and calm in the simplicity of counting to ten. I can take a breath in for a count of 4, hold it for 7, exhale for 8 and find a deep calm. Numbers are meditative and, in the practise I use on and off, it’s a staple component. It helps focus my mind on my breath instead of wandering off on a snipe hunt. I can’t chase down imagined worries or spend those few minutes on real-world concerns. Concerns that are, too often, beyond my control. So, I control my breathing and practise my counting like I did when I was in grade one.

It’s funny how one thing can trigger opposing reactions. It can be a good thing that brings calm, and it can shatter that calm with fear and self-loathing. It can create order out of the chaos it caused. It can bring about love, and it can inspire hate. It all depends on which side of the numbers you land on. 

Right now, the universal example would be the statistics surrounding the virus ravishing our countries. When this all started, I found comfort in the stats that showed low mortality rates and a significantly high recovery. Specifically, in my country, during the first wave, we managed to work together and keep the spread small.

Now we’re in the second wave, and our numbers are climbing exponentially. Still, when I look at the statistics, the odds of survival and recovery are in our favour. That should bring the same level of comfort that it did before. I should feel a sense of relief because the odds, if we’re playing that game, are in our favour.

But those numbers bring tears instead of relief.

Again, it depends on your experience, but I can tell you that those numbers mean nothing when you join the statistical pool. When you get sick, and every breath feels like your muscles are being ripped from your bones. You won’t care that the odds of getting sick are slim. When the mortality rate comes close to your home, you won’t care that the odds of dying from Covid in Canada is less than 1%.

I contracted Covid in September, and here we are in December, and I’m still struggling. This past weekend a good woman, someone who always made me laugh, passed away from this virus and her family is devastated. And just like that, the same numbers that gave me comfort mean nothing. Now those numbers have names, faces, and stories attached to every digit.

Whenever the human toll is expressed, there’s an accusation of fear-mongering so, let me get ahead of that. I don’t want you to live in fear, and I’m striving to live a happier life. Sitting in that fear-based headspace is hard, uncomfortable, and exhausting. It certainly isn’t healthy which is why I run the numbers. It gives me comfort, but I’d be foolish, cruel even if I ignored the other side. 

I’m not trying to instil fear. I’m trying to make sense of the numbers game for my own sanity. I’m trying to find a balance between living in the endless calculations and the person behind each statistic. That includes you, my friend. You aren’t a number on the analytics. You’re a living, breathing person who has so much value just because you exist.

Each of us has a story that’s filled with ups, downs, tragedies, and comedies. We’re complex beings with so many hopes, dreams, and statistical possibilities that we’d like to explore. So how do I, we, find the balance between the statistics, and our humanity?

I’m process my thoughts in real time. The only answer I can find, or give, is focus on the most important elements. That, for me, would be humanity over mathematics. That should be easier to do, but I’m caught in the fear loop. I know I want to focus on what’s really important, and to do that I need to find a way to stop running the numbers.

Maybe talking it out will help because the numbers running in my head are deafening, and sickening. If I say it out loud, the volume will turn down, and I can step out of the numbers game. If I can do that, I can turn my attention to what really matters to me.


One thought on “The Numbers Game

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  1. I just watched one of those twee, almost cartoonish tv adverts – our company will help you through Covid… it will be ok.
    So many of them, normalizing a world of masks, making a game out of hand-washing…
    somehow normalizing a world where, when you’re simply living in it, everything feels like the walls closing in.
    But you…
    Every time you write, you show your full heart.
    You’re one of the things that make it ok.
    There’s no number big enough for what you are…

    but we count anyway, because you are there.


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