The Math Metaphor


With an English teaching mother, and a mathematically minded father, I frequently find myself entangled in a ‘Words vs Numbers’ web of banter. Both my parents exhibit extreme zeal for their respective fields, and I thoroughly enjoy how this passion surfaces in our daily repertoire. Mum’s words are always well-crafted and poetic in nature, and Dad’s way of logical deduction is admirable. I am very fortunate to have grown up understanding how both language and figures can be utilised to reason, justify and analyse.

Dad’s arithmetic brain frequently clashes with mum’s expressive mind, and it’s very interesting to witness how different scenarios and ideas can be interpreted in unique ways.  One of the most comical examples of their dichotomous ways of thinking occurred when Mum attempted to explain to Dad the meaning of the term ‘simile’. It went something like this:

“Ok hun, so you remember Forest Gump? Life is like a box of chocolates?”
“Yes”
“That’s a prime example of a simile. It’s when you compare two things things that are seemingly different. Understand?”
“So life is to chocolates as assortments are to random. Life is random. Understood.”
I was in absolute stitches and mum, well, her reaction was as follows:


Interestingly, however, I am the very reciprocal of my father. Rather than applying math to English, I attempt to utilise language to make mathematical problems that little bit more tangible.

For example, the standard equation 12x+10=70 would mentally become this: If I have 70 people coming to my 21st, I will need 70 desserts. Cupcakes come in boxes of 12, so many boxes (x) do I need if 10 guests will be eating vegan equivalents because theyre hipsters following some gluten-free rabbit-food diet?

I think it terms of language…. and FOOD.

Most of the time, verbalising the numerical problems assisted with my solutions. But there was one specific syllabus requirement in highschool mathematics that I found specifically challenging.

LONG. DIVISION.

Long division. WTF is this logic?

Can you remember learning long-division? Or should I say, incept-division; Dividing on top of dividing on top of more dividing. The thing I resent about it is that one simple miscalculation can shatter your working out process, and come back to haunt you when your answer is required for part b of the question. On top of this, there would inevitably come a point where you end up with the ‘remainder’. That irritating, unnecessary little bit left over that you don’t really know what to do with.

Incept-division

Accomplishing long division was a huge personal success. It gave me perseverance to understand how it works and resilience to struggle through problems again if my calculations turned sour. Most of all, it enabled me to apply my love of language forms and features to mathematics in a completely new and profound way. Ironically, the metaphor is in the maths.

You see, one simple mistake, one overlooked detail or seemingly insignificant decision can infiltrate your existence like a plague; slowly but surely impacting how you solve the rest of the inevitable problems the world throws your way. And at the end of every big step in the formula of life, when you start to move on to solving your next problem thinking that it’s all behind you, you realise there’s that little remainder. The remnants that you cannot let go of; the memories and thoughts that stick with you forever.

People always discuss the thought of ‘moving on’ in terms of ‘forgetting’ or ‘letting go’. But if there’s anything that long division has taught me, it’s that the remainder will never go away.  Rather than attempting the impossible by trying to forget about it entirely, perhaps we should accept it as part of the solution. Indeed these little pieces left behind from trauma, rejection, pain, hurt and despair define us and enable us to learn new facets of ourselves previously hidden. Thus, apply the metaphor of Maths: if remainder is a part of the answer, maybe it’s not about letting it go. Rather, we must acknowledge its existence and move forward to the next question… the next puzzle….part b of the big adventure that is life.

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9 responses

  1. I’m not very good with language, but acceptably good at Maths… Learned “long division” before high school… :-D
    And how you compared it with life is wonderful…

    Did you hypnotize me and got it out from me..? :-P

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  2. To begin with, thanks for dropping by this morning to my blog this morning featuring Dr. Seuss.

    Wow – life is like long division. That’s some simile indeed . . . long division and there annoying remainders. Or do I have this confused with a metaphor? Argh. . . I’m a carpenter and I love math, geometry and such. I had to look up the difference between a metaphor and a simile, and I still don’t totally get it!

    I really liked the your concluding paragraph about how we’d be wise not to forget the despairs and disillusionment, but rather embrace them as part of reality, and then move on with this in mind. So true. Anything less we do at our peril.

    An encouraging, witty and empowering post, Hannah. Keep on moving forward with that Math metaphor style of your Dad’s and the literary wisdom of your moms. You’ll end with style all your own to be proud of, whatever your future endeavours.

    Best regards and peace . . . Bruce, from the west coast of Canada

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    • Many thanks Bruce :) your kind words made my day :) I’m new to writing and blogging, and it’s so encouraging to hear when your writing resonates with people. Thank you for taking the time to drop by my blog and I hope to see you back soon :)

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  3. A rather entertaining post, Hannah. Sounds as if you have a wonderful and talented pair of parents, and their stereotypical differences in thought made for an amusing anecdote.

    Interestingly, your clever use of math as a metaphor touches upon my forthcoming book. It deals with narcissism, and I treat the myth of Narcissus (Ovid’s version) as a metaphor. This metaphoric interpretation allows the myth to act as a wonderful teaching vehicle, much as you’ve done here.

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  4. Love your analogy of long division to life! As your Dad can tell you, long division is an example of what is known as an “algorithm,” a process that requires a series of repeating steps. Working out a square root to a given number of decimal places is also an algorithm. So is a programming subroutine in, say, COBOL or FORTRAN. Each time you repeat the same steps is known as an “iteration,” an important concept in calculus. I am really more of a word person than a maths guy, but like you, I enjoy appreciating how both sides contribute to the whole of what we call “knowledge.” It is said that one can be “left brained” or “right brained” dependent on one’s proclivity for the verbal or the mathematical, but the one thing that is clear is that both sides of the brain must work together to have a fully functional human being! Keep up the great work, Hannah. :)

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    • I never really used to like maths, and I was always that person that told my teacher, “but we’ll never have to use this in real life”. But I realised that there’s so many skills you can develop from practicing algorithms aside from just mathematical techniques. It takes discipline and practice to apply logic to different problems.
      I’m with you; I think using both sides of your brain enables you to fully function and comprehend new things.

      Thanks so much for all your support! Hopefully see you back soon!

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