The Mathematics of Life

“I just wanted you to know I hear you. I see you.”

I received this voice message from a friend in response to a long, rambling complaint I sent the day before. 

“In walking with people through grief and loss, I’ve recognized how powerless I am to rescue anyone, said Aubrey Sampson. “And I’ve been surprised (and humbled a bit) that people rarely look at me for rescuing. Rather, they’re desiring to connect, to be validated that their suffering or the injustice they are facing hasn’t somehow disqualified them from personhood,” 

In that moment, I felt like a person again because I knew someone—even if separated by two time zones from me—saw me.

I could identify the feelings of sadness, anger, worry, and general angst. I could name a laundry list of circumstances in my and my extended family members’ lives. But I couldn’t let myself really pull apart the factors that had multiplied to equal this current spiral into infinite sadness.

With all the moving variables of emotions, there was but one constant: shame.

How could I ramble off an assortment of hardships when others I love have lost so much more? How could I complain about not having enough when not having enough meant being unable to afford a vacation for my kids for spring break? For others, not having enough meant not putting bread in the hands of their children every day. 

I felt the anger at myself deep in my core, multiplying the hurt. 

For all of us, the losses of the past few years are a heavy weight, and there is no scale that has a counterweight on the other side. The equations we think should add up just don’t.

I was comforted by my friend’s assurance that I was not alone, but it didn’t help the guilt I allowed to seep into the ground of my being. It tripled the worthlessness that howled in my ears. 

Another notification dinged on my phone. She proceeded to name issues she knew to be present in my life— ones I hadn’t mentioned the day before. Ones that ran deeper than the kick in the gut of a hefty financial blow or the frustration of parenting-working-schooling life that never seemed to add up to enough. 

She knew the anniversary of the loss I faced, the loved one just out of surgery, the parent in pain, the inability to help loved ones drowning, and the struggling child. She named the yawning unknowns I faced and the dreams I’d lost. 

“It’s a lot,” she said. “Anyone would be struggling under the weight of all that. It’s like you are a pillar holding the weight of your own life and the lives of everyone around you, and you’re cracking under the weight. Really, it’s so much,” she echoed. I didn’t quite believe her yet as I continued to weigh my pain against that of others in this always-lose game of, “whose suffering is worse?” But I tried.

The weekend came and the tears flowed at inconvenient times. Unpredictable and unbidden, they stained my cheeks while I tried to have a conversation with a relative and I had to walk away to hide them. 

I scrolled through people’s Facebook photos, thinking happy smiling photos might bring some joy. I saw a friend from another lifetime, it seemed. We’d worked together in Bangladesh. The beautiful photo included her daughter I hadn’t met, born after we moved back to the States. The quiet tears from before turned into wracking sobs. 

“It’s okay to grieve the lost things you held only as the flutters of hopes and dreams. It’s still loss. How else do we make peace with the present?” asked Alia Joy

I let myself cry for the lost friendship—that one and countless others that have drifted away over the last few years. I let the loneliness I feel every day rise around me. I held the dream in my hands of living overseas long-term and lamented its loss again. It doesn’t matter how many years it has been. That’s not how grief works, in linear stages like the textbooks would like you to believe. It can feel as fresh as ever simply because of a photo. It needs to be felt again. 

I let myself finally believe what my friend said. I let myself feel what I felt and believed it didn’t take away from the good in my life or add to the bad in others. It just was. 

For all of us, the losses of the past few years are a heavy weight, and there is no scale that has a counterweight on the other side. The equations we think should add up just don’t. 

I let myself feel what I felt and believed it didn’t take away from the good in my life or add to the bad in others. It just was.

This loss + That blessing = I don’t have the right to grieve.

Their loss > My loss = Mine doesn’t matter.

That’s the math I’ve been trying to define my life by. It simply doesn’t work.

I pulled out a piece of paper to write down an equation a counselor told me a few years ago that I know does work. 

Name the loss + Grieve the loss (repeat as necessary) = Begin to heal

Name a new dream in it’s place + Believe in that dream (repeat as necessary) = Continue healing

Struggling under the weight of re-entry from our second international move in two years, this counselor told me to name all the losses I needed to grieve—the obvious ones and the seemingly insignificant ones. Write them down. Look at the list. Pray over the list. Feel the feelings. Grieve the losses as long as that takes. When you feel the weight begin to lessen and you feel ready to move on, mark them off the list. (Know you might need to add them back later because—again—grief isn’t a once-and-done calculation). 

When you’ve worked through the items, start replacing them with new dreams, new hopes, and new goals. And dare to believe in them, to work for them, to pray for them. Don’t let your grief keep you from living, from moving forward. The new dreams don’t replace the old losses. They can’t. But they can help you keep living. 

Love = loss.

You can’t have one without risking the other. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it, doesn’t feel like the scales balance out.

But it’s the only mathematics that makes life worth living. 

Nicole T. Walters
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3 thoughts on “The Mathematics of Life

  1. Oh friend. I have read this over and over again – letting your last lines sink in.
    Your words are a balm. Thank you for this.

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