Do you remember those ‘Paint by Numbers’ pictures you did when you were a kid? They weren’t too bad, if you were careful when you did them, and you stood well back when looking at the finished picture. But they did’t fool anybody for long, did they? They were not ‘real’ art.
Sometimes I think we live life like that. Instead of living a real life we live a sort of ‘Life by Numbers’. We hedge ourselves in by them, surround ourselves and don’t let the real life find us.
It starts early. Very early. Its normally the second question anybody asks about you. The first one is…Boy or Girl? The second one is…what does s/he weigh? And off we go…
“How old is she?” “Seven months!”
“How many teeth does he have now?”
“How many words can she say?”
We continue defining ourselves by numbers all our lives. We segregate children into groups based on nothing more than the date of their birth. And if a child is in a class of different aged children we make immediate judgements. Think of the difference between telling someone your son is in a class above his age peers, or one below it.
I started thinking about this when I was running this week. I had gone for a run in the forest, and I had forgotten my watch. I don’t know what it is about Bottle Lake Forest, but I always seem to get lost there. I run around for an hour or so and then start looking hopefully for the car park. Usually after another half hour or so I find it. Sometimes it is quite a surprise when I stumble across it, and sometimes it is the wrong car park entirely, and off I go again!
The thing is, as I never know exactly where I have been, I have no idea how far I have run. I can normally get an idea by knowing how long I have been out for, but with no watch, that was a non starter too. So I just ran. I had no idea of my pace, of how far I had gone, or even of how long I had been out there, and how long it was likely to be before I got back to the van. All I can say, is that it was a good thing I didn’t have to be anywhere for a particular time!
But it did bring up some interesting thoughts. As runners we surround ourselves with numbers, we know our race pace, our training pace. We count hours of training and miles per week run. We collect personal best times over various distances run. We strap on heart monitors so we can run at the right pace. We carry devices that count our steps, our distance traveled and the number of feet of ascent. We even count the calories we have burnt.
If we start looking outside running, we find we count the hours we work and the amount we get paid. We count the calories in our meal and the number of biscuits left in the tin! We count our grade point averages, and our children’s test results at school, and we judge ourselves on the basis of all these numbers.
Even those of us who are trying to step out of the whirlpool of modern life get caught in the number game. “I have managed to pare my kitchen down to 50 items” we exclaim proudly. Or we tell everyone we have got our luggage for our latest trip into a 7kg hand bag. We send less than 10 Christmas cards, or donate 5 items a week to Goodwill.
And recently I have been caught up in it too. I keep trying to write those number blog posts. The ones that are titled “10 ways to Slow Down for Christmas!” or “5 Surefire ways to Keep the Holidays Stress Free!” Apparently people love them, and they are a great way to get your reader numbers up…..oh dear…
I’m no good at them though, so those particular posts are still sitting in the drafts section.
So just what is it about numbers? Why do we love them so much? Why do we count everything and then make judgements on those numbers? Am I a better blogger than I was 3 weeks ago because I now have more than 20 subscribers? Am I less of a person than the runner whose PB is 5 minutes faster than mine?
I have no answers here. I suspect it is because numbers give us a way of placing ourselves in a large and largely unintelligible world. We don’t fit here…BMI is too high….or here, our wages are too low…but we do fit here because we all have run a 10km race.
So what happens if we try living without the numbers? What happens if we stop counting the calories, timing the runs, checking the miles-per-gallon or the minutes per kilometre run? Maybe I will give it a try. We cannot entirely throw the watch away, we do need to pick the kids up from school on time, or arrive at work, or get to that dentist appointment, but we can make some changes.
I think I will try it over the holiday season. I will try to stop quantifying everything. I will leave my watch behind and not count the number of miles I have run. I will stop counting calories, and just eat when hungry and stop when full. I will try not to ask the number questions…how old are you?….what year are you in?… how many semesters have you left at college? and try instead to ask the real questions, the ones about life.
How are you? How is your daughter? How was your run? Did you have a lovely time at the picnic? How do you feel about that?
Or maybe I won’t ask any questions at all.
Maybe I will just listen.