Some Mathematical Healing

Mathematics is not often thought of in regards to healing.  Instead, we think of meditation, basking in the wonders of nature, relaxation, living in the moment, letting go, listening to soothing music.  However, lately mathematics has been a source of healing.  The following example will show you how.

Recently, my Dad’s 93 year-old brain has been on the on and off mode.  Sometimes he cannot distinguish between dream and reality and acts with extreme apprehension concerning the circumstances of his dreams.  The more practical side of his mind is obsessed with financial transactions, often spending hours trying to solve problems that seem impossible, but are really quite doable.  It dawned on me that a simple algebra problem might gather Dad’s thoughts in a tighter and more purposeful direction.  I might say that mathematics seems to me like a demanding yet supportive parent.  Like a parent, there are rules that must be obeyed and an order to be preserved.  However, there is also something truly soothing about logical boundaries, and a clear set of rules, which, if followed to the letter, lead to future paths of discovery.  Parts of the mind are held in check,  but others are ever expanding, testing, and exploring.  So too, an effective parent guides the child through progressive steps toward exploration.  With these thoughts in mind, I gave Dad the following problem:  Solve for x:  (x)(x)-7=9.  Dad simplified the equation to (x)(x)=16.  Then he began to test numbers such as 2, 4, 6, 8, to see which ones might work.  He also talked about square roots.  After about ten minutes, he came up with the answer 4.  When I told him that was only half the solution, he was nonplussed.  It took him awhile(with some prodding from me) to realize that negative numbers also exist.  When he resisted the idea, I told him that during our lifetimes we had encountered many negative numbers, and a smile crossed his wizened, unshaven face.  He allowed for the possibility of negative numbers.  He then gave -4 as the other solution.  Suddenly, he said that any two negatives squared would result in a positive, so there would always be two numbers as possible solutions  to the type of problem I was asking in which the x’s squared are equal to a positive number.  It amazed me to see how his mind was able to move to such a generalization, so I cried out,  “Bravo!”  Later that evening he was able to solve a financial problem that he couldn’t solve earlier.  Temporarily at least, my Dad’s mind had climbed to a new level of thinking.  I thought this was as an excellent example of mathematical healing and that is why I decided to share it with you.

Something To Think About: “Would You Pay The Price? What Would You Do?”

The above lines come from the 1966 American musical Cabaret based on writings of Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten.  The musical focuses on the lives of a few people and their reactions to the growing Nazi threat in 1930s Berlin.  The musical was unusual in that it did not have a happy ending and Americans are used to happy endings.  Thomas Hischak offers his own description of Cabaret in his The Oxford Companion to the American Musical:  “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s,…”  What makes this musical so innovative?  It introduces us to decadent Berlin through an MC of the Kit Kat Club, himself a mixture of playfulness, immorality, and darkness.  As the show progresses, the political overtones become ever more ominous and threatening.  The title, which also serves as one of the main songs in the musical, is a celebration of irresponsibility and seediness.  Sally Bowles, one of the chief entertainers at the Kit Kat Club and the girlfriend of Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer, sings the song as a tribute to her late girlfriend Elsie.  Sally’s friend was a prostitute, drug addict and alcoholic who died from too much of the latter.  Sally sings of Elsie’s death, “… But when I saw her laid out like a queen, she was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen.”  Elsie’s memory motivates Sally to return to the cabaret where she will probably end up like Elsie.

A sub-plot concerns the romance between Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider and the Jewish fruit seller, Herr Schultz.  After she accepts Herr Schultz’s proposal of marriage, pressure is put on her by Nazi smuggler, Ernst Ludwig, who had introduced Cliff to Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house, to break off the marriage to avoid the repercussions of marrying a Jew.  She decides to comply with Ernst’s demand.  Cliff and Sally are shocked to learn of her decision, so she asks them, “What would you do?”  Although, she emphasizes her status as an old woman, the song that follows could be sung by anyone who is confronted with a despicable regime and the consequences of doing what is ethically right.

In London in 1993, Sara Kestelman gave an intense, harrowing interpretation of the role of Fraulein Schneider for which she won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a  Supporting Role in a Musical.  What follows is her version of the song, What Would You Do? My thanks to lluluss for posting this song on youtube.