The private study of mathematics as a spiritual exercise in developing patience, courage, and humility :
– patience with learning how to work through one’s confusion
– courage to devote many years, if not an entire lifetime, to work alone at one’s own pace with no expectations of any financial returns, no payoff but for the satisfaction of becoming a little more familiar with a vast mental discipline; courage is also required to face down the materialistic society of philistines, that is, the middle-class with its warped values and narrow definitions of success
– humility in taking some delight just for understanding what you work towards understanding, and not wasting too much energy moping about how little you can learn in a lifetime, or how mediocre you feel in comparison to some mathematical geniuses
It is possible that my continued devotion to my private encounter with mathematics is at once neurotic and potentially damaging to my mental health in that I block out the rest of the world and society; but it is equally likely that that the rest of the world is so psychologically damaged that my devotion to my studies and the isolation it requires serves as a kind of Fortress of Solitude shielding me against the harmful semantic reactions experienced from exposure to “the sick society”.
When others accuse you of wasting your life or not contributing to society, you can explain that you are just waiting to die, and since the study of mathematics is so very time consuming where the progress made, if any at all, is slow, this is surely an interesting way to get through this life not worth living in the first place.
And so I see, I recognize, that I am involved in a mental health experiment. Will this obsession lead me into a deeper state of detachment, and, if so, will such detachment exacerbate the anxiety inherent in Being, or will it, paradoxically, decrease this anxiety?
Remember that such an obsession may be a form of escapism, where I do not do anything constructive to alleviate any concerns about “the future”. In fact, the kind of discipline I require of myself does not allow me to rush along through the texts. I go through about 6 texts from the same subject, trying to do all the worthwhile exercises. I am in no rush to get through them since, unlike the high school student, I have already taken the courses the material is a preliminary to.
There is not so much mystery. What I am exposing myself to is what Schopenhauer referred to as “drudgery”. Also, I sense that Schopenhauer may have felt that too much calculating and computation would somehow damage the brain. It certainly can’t damage it as much as hard liquor!
Have I bitten off more than I can chew in the sheer amount of texts I have been going through, and the ones I intend to follow through with? It’s all an experiment, the experiment of a man who feels he has already lived his life, a man who has sobered up mostly to assist his aging mother and to contribute his government relief funds toward paying her bills and providing shared groceries. In return, living like a monk in a cell, the Creature is no longer roaming around and getting into trouble, handcuffs, psychiatric wards.
I felt the only way I would be able to keep the Creature occupied and enthusiastic about waking up in the morning is to do something it had never had a chance to do before, which is return to the mathematics which troubled him so as a young adult. Sure, the Creature was granted the opportunity to enter university from age 31 to 35, and he did graduate; but as he returned to his “studies” years later, after making the commitment to reside with The Mother, he/it realized that, he may have an opportunity to do something which he will never have an opportunity to do again. I mean, once I committed to physics texts, differential equations, linear algebra, number theory, abstract algebra, etc, there would be an endless procession through difficult material, and I would wonder if the difficulty was rooted in confusions at more fundamental levels.
When integration got hairy, was it not with reference to trigonometric identities or parametric equations? When a problem required detailed sketches and breaking down into parts, I would become a little frustrated.
So, I thought, maybe I can start over, bringing to the beginning all I have learned up to this point in my life, and tracking down texts from the 1960’s [with rigor, proofs, and set-builder notation] along with texts from the 1980’s and more recent ones that incorporate graphing utilities and computer algebra systems.
At this point in my life, with the trouble I have been in, not to mention the official diagnosis of bipolar disorder, my chances of ever being employed in some kind of “Institution of Higher Education” are null. And so, if I was to become a Teacher of Preliminary Mathematics, the Bridge to Advanced Mathematics, I was to become my one and only Student.
Student and Teacher in One Creature. Often the Creature complains that maybe some of the material is redundant or not challenging enough; but then, no, moving along the exercises become challenging enough, and it realizes that it has made a wise decision, that it is involved in a kind of remarkable process, defying the myths, facing the brute fact that this discipline requires endless devotion. It helps to have no social life whatsoever.
Do you see how I have flipped the script on the psychiatrists and their Mental Health Industry?
Isolation is frowned upon. Structure and social interaction is encouraged.
What if it is precisely structure and social interaction which drives the Creature to seek oblivion via drugs and alcohol?
So this is my “mental health experiment”.
I figure that seeing my devoted study in this light, as opposed to the “career-oriented” mindset contaminating the discipline of mathematics world-wide, would enable me to define my own peculiar approach and relationship to mathematics.
You see, there are those of us who study math, and then there are those who are professional mathematicians. I study math. This is how I deal with consciousness. What are we but meat that defecates and will one day rot in the earth? It’s as though we were organic machines which eat and emit waste.
There is no “soul” that religions speak of; and there is no “self” that psychoanalysis speaks of.
There is this Creature, and anything it has learned from books it has had to work it out alone in its head. There were a few important tips from a calculus instructor from India, Jay Deshubundi, in 1994 while attending community college on Saturdays when working for the park service, but mostly this has been a solitary intellectual adventure, which includes the evolution of the computer algebra systems and my tinkering with programming.
The point is that I am now a man obsessed, and, from the outside, I may even appear to be mentally ill, the way I isolate, the way I do not look for employment or put away for the future. Yes, I may not be right in the head, as they say. Maybe I’ve always been a little weird, to say the least.
So be it. I would challenge the professors in the universities to return to some of the “high school” mathematics being presented in the 1960’s. I would challenge them to engage with some of the more challenging exercises, to work through them, if they can muster up the courage to stoop so low as to allow themselves to be challenged by what some of them sneer at as “baby math.”
It is not “baby math,” not the way it was presented by Mary Dolciani or Frank Allen.
Some of your university students might do well to drop out of college for a good five years and check them out!
Maybe there exist throughout the world certain psychiatric patients who might benefit from “Math Therapy.”
(originally posted at How To Get Through A Life Not Worth Living)