It seems like I know a thousand people fighting through the ravages of dis ease. They live with an individual tenacity, and collectively, they represent dis ease’s many human forms. One is recovering from a stroke, many have non-curable cancers. I have friends whose most beloved partners have betrayed them, causing them the dis ease of questioning the most intimate details of their history together. I have friends who suffer from the grayish fogs of depression, and I cannot help but think that most of us know someone who has lost their job, and their house, and everything else as they attempt to take care of their kids and to stay out of the downward spiral of homelessness. Each one of these friends demonstrates a love for life’s blessing far beyond the strength required for most of us to put together a normal day in the life. For all you quant-heads out there, I think of these incredible people as examples of the following mathematical theorem:
Life Lived + X = What It Takes to Meet Extraordinary Challenges
It is the “X” factor that these friends demonstrate that really amazes me, and it seems to me the term “X Factor” has been profaned by the current media hype of a network that will not be named, and a producer who evidently knows a goldmine when he sees it.
You would have to have your head in a hole to not have heard about the new TV competition called “The X Factor.” I don’t know why I feel the need to understand such current media phenomena, but I do. So I watched one episode of “X Factor” just to see if there was anything different between this and the multitude of other “dream come true” shows that have flooded the big networks. It is formulaic. The star wannabes are either pretty good, or pretty bad, and everyone in the audience knows it. The four judges, probably chosen for their own “X factors,” either move them on, or they take them down. Presumably, it will get harder for the contestants as the competition continues, since the winner gets a million dollars and a recording contract, and in the end, there will be “controversy” over who should have won.
The “X Factor” refers to that which creates an emotional bond between these aspirants and their potential audience. It is more than just another pretty face singing someone else’s song, and it is usually associated with overcoming some challenge, while being able to sing about it. Just because it is predictable, doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and in fact, I am sure that one reason the show is so popular is that people know what good feelings they are going to feel when they watch it. But the X factor that I am thinking about, while admirable, is not so pretty. It involves all of the stuff that makes dis ease so unpleasant, and this works against the emotional bonding that is associated with entertainment.
The X Factor requires that we figure out the basics of adulthood all over again, just to keep on day to day. How do you go to the bathroom when the toilet is so low that you cannot get off it? How do you eat when all you want to do is throw up? How do you shower, shave, put on deodorant when your hands shake so badly that you are afraid you will leave your face in ribbons? How do you get dressed when your legs and feet feel like alien beings stuck onto your body by a cruel prankster? How do you work when a gray fog mutes your perception of the world, literally pressing down on your eyes and ears? How do you face your kids and tell them everything will be all right, knowing full well that you have to move out of your home, and you aren’t even sure from where the next meal is coming? This is the stuff of dis ease, and it doesn’t even address the effects on the people who are connected by their care for the afflicted one. Like an exponential dance, dis ease spirals into a crushing weight that threatens to disrupt everything good and right that we know. One dear friend, in writing about his beloved spouse and her dis ease says, “I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how any of the people that we know with their horrible challenges do it.” I don’t know either, so I have, in the words of my former algebra teacher, “let X stand for the unknown value.”
In math, when we have an unknown, we seek to bring it to light, to make it a known quantity. Math courses are predicated on this quest, throwing ever more complicated problems at the unwitting until they are just too complex for solution. We work puzzles with the same expectation. We know that at some point, we will need assistance, and that there are some challenges beyond our ability to find their solution. I think it is possible to look at life (probably somewhat cynically) as a series of challenges that you successfully meet, or that at some point are just too complicated to solve. Death, from this point of view, is a series of variables that finally overwhelm the body past any point of recovery. All of us living in the a chronic dis ease world, understand this phenomenon. While our temporarily able bodied brothers and sisters face their life challenges through a slow progression of solving for a new “X,” in the dis ease world, the progression is squared, cubed and so on. Our X factor has to be really fast, anticipatory, and out in front. And our X factor also has to be somewhat fatalistic. While all of us can see the end when the complications are beyond us, those of us trying to manage our dis ease are solving for X to the power of 2, 3, 4 and beyond. We know how this ends, even when we don’t want to admit it.
For the sake of their privacy, I am not going to call out the cancers and depression, the broken relationships, and the homelessness. But I speak directly to each one of them here.
I want you to know that you are my brothers and sisters in arms. I am amazed at your resilience and fortitude, your positive attitude and your courage in facing death and debilitation. I am humbled by the strength and beauty that you show us in spite of the loss of function, the nausea and hair loss, the smells and the sounds of pain and suffering. I am inspired by the fact that you keep your kids close and protected and positive as you work through your losses. I am honored that you share your journey back to trust and health, in spite of the pain of betrayal. All of you know that the normal day-to-day world of the temporarily able bodied is no longer yours, and yet, you keep on. You love your families; you honor your friends, and you show us every day that life is a precious gift that requires a commitment to its living. You show the true X Factor, one that I hope someday to emulate. You know full well that the only ones who will really get it, who will see the the power of your X Factor, are those that are most affected by your dis ease, the ones who love you more than life itself. And you honor their love for you through your resilience.
I don’t expect Simon Cowell or the Voldemort Network to ever get this. They can continue to dabble in the X factor as entertainment, stimulating some part of our psyche that needs ever more and more of whatever it is they are peddling. But I would say, if you really want to see the X Factor in life, then hold the hand of your beloved as she fends off the newest cancer, mop your friend’s brow as he fights through the nausea of chemo-therapy, or just sit quietly with your eyes on God incarnate as your love’s breathing slows to nothing. You cannot really capture this on television, but should you take this opportunity, perhaps you will get a glimpse of the X factor, and you will marvel at just how beautiful the math can be.