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A Math Lesson

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

My mind is quite often a jumble of competing and contradictory thoughts and impulses. These thoughts and emotions are not considerate in the way they present themselves to my consciousness—they assault me pell-mell, simultaneously, at any and all times of the day or night, and I must often make a concerted effort to choose to discard certain thoughts temporarily and choose to pursue one task. More often than not, even as I am focused on a particular responsibility, there is at least one sub-category or task that I’m thinking about at the same time, to a lesser degree.

This was my state of mind this morning. Deadlines for meetings, decisions to be made about student discipline, thoughts about school policy, making a grocery list, getting to the bank, picking up contacts for my daughter before the place closes mid-day, checks to sign…all were crowding into my brain.

There are certain things I do from time to time that function as a kind of security blanket for me—the ritual cup of coffee, lighting a favorite candle, classical music. Today, I turned to the music of Bach to help me calm down, specifically, the Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy) from the B minor Mass. As this beautiful counterpoint unfolded, my soul was ordered, quieted.

I was reminded of something our Math teacher, Mr. Carr, told his Algebra I class yesterday as I was observing: “The constant determines the variables.”

When he said this I was struck by the profound implications of that statement—God is obviously the constant, ordering and determining all the variables of life– and now, as I listened to this very complex music, the significance of the statement expanded for me.

In this sort of counterpoint, called a fugue, a composer selects a brief bit of melody called a subject. This subject is “stated” at the beginning of the music, and then reiterated in different voices, at different moments (“episodes,”) throughout the piece. It can be slightly altered, stated in more than one voice at one time, stated backwards, stated in successive voices, etc. There are other bits of music which join all of these, like connective tissue, into an integrated whole.

Toward the end of the piece, all the voices dovetail into one final statement of the theme, called a coda, and the final chord. The sense of satisfaction when this moment comes is immense, both for the listener and the performer, because all through the piece, the voices overlap and interrupt each other, building up a great deal of unresolved tension; even though one can hear the subject in different voices, resolution seems elusive. Until the voices begin to dovetail into the last grand statement of the theme, resolution is only hinted at, but in that last line it becomes clear that everything was interwoven and working toward a planned outcome from the very beginning. Even though the listener was not always aware of it, the subject was the source of all the variations and episodes within the piece—the constant determined the variables.

So what of the variables of this day? They seem disordered and chaotic, a jumble of interruptions and overlaps demanding my attention, seeming to be held together only by the fact that they are all occurring in my brain, until I hear the fugue and remember: I don’t have to be concerned about the final resolution, the final chord, no matter how many episodes occur and no matter how difficult it may be at times to recognize the subject in the multitude of overlapping voices. I don’t have to worry about all of this, because even the variables of a security blanket and a long-forgotten math principle are just an outgrowth of the subject, the constant, God—and the constant always determines the variables.

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