Our primal relationship with numbers

creative nonfiction, health, relationships, wellbeing, wellness

Judging from how many articles there are out there with headlines like, “The 8 Top Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Anxiety” and, “The Only 5 Things You Need to Live a Good Life,” we appear to be in love with numbers. We just are. In fact, they almost feel built in, like numbers are simply part of who we are. They most certainly are one of the first ways we come to understand the world and begin to develop trust in what we know, which makes it downright destabilizing when our numbers don’t add up. This was so apparent on my 3.5-year-old grandson’s face a few weeks ago as he stood in our driveway (a socially  responsible distance away) when our neighbor’s 3-legged cat came hopping on down to see what all the activity was about. I introduced Tripod, the 3-legged cat to Leo, who then looked enormously confused and said, “I thought cats had 4 legs.”

I’m also seeing how numbers anchor us in what we know on the other end of the life spectrum with my mother, who has been a resident in a memory unit for the past year.* But as we’ve watched her cognitive decline, we’ve also seen how she has recently and instinctively fallen back on numbers as a strategy to help her hang onto what she knows. In our weekly family Zoom calls, we now fully expect Mom, right off the bat, to appear before us on the screen with her hands looming large in the foreground.

“I have 6 things to tell you,” she will say while stretching out 8 fingers. Somehow this juvenile misalignment is as adorable as it is heart-breaking. While Leo goes around picking up numbers and knowledge, Mom goes around desperately trying to hold onto them as they drop to the ground.

This relationship we have with numbers is complicated, mysterious and almost primal. In the wellness world, “knowing your numbers,” is both vital and loaded. There is the factual meaning they signify and then the meaning we make of them — sometimes beautifully, and sometimes quite unproductively (as in my value as a person is equal to the number on the scale or the number in my bank account). And because of this primal relationship with numbers we have that seem to speak to us in some strange native tongue, I know there is a number-based wellbeing message personal to you in this little Wellness Wednesday ode to numbers. I don’t know what it is, but I think you’ll know it when you see it if you dig around.

Here’s what I found for me:

“Elizabeth, invite only one single thing to do at a time onto your mountaintop. This will make you infinitely happier.”


And now the time has come to invite the next thing onto my mountaintop, so I will leave off with my top 3 wishes for you for the day: May you:

1. Have an interesting one,
2. See something of beauty out there,
3. And find your personal wellbeing message in here somewhere.


*Over the years my mother, a former nurse, has implored me to “tell the story of the disabled,” knowing instinctively that we all need to be seen and our experiences understood, probably especially the disabling ones. Though I no longer check in with her every time I write a story because it is now too confusing, I do have her permission.

2 thoughts on “Our primal relationship with numbers”

  1. My life is a dichotomy. I work in numbers (accounting) but my love is words. Because I analyze numbers all the time I’m constantly running percentages in my head and looking for trends. COVID-19 has been an obsession for me. But for whatever reason, I’ve never done a 10 things… post. Once a friend asked if he could write a guest post and then he wrote a ‘top 3 things…’ post. I cringe any time someone reads it.


  2. Now I’m dying to read those “top 3 things.” I seriously am. Can you take one for the blogger team and pass along the link? Also curious as to what you would do with a Top 10 Things story if you were forced to do one. Or paid to do one. And if there would be a difference in what you’d write based on being forced or paid.


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