A is for Algebra

Let me begin by thanking you for continuing to read after seeing the word algebra in the title. I’m assuming that most of you do not respond to this topic with, “Oh, boy, an article on algebra.” Normally I wouldn’t read, much less write, something on algebra, but I am just off the Internet checking some credit card data and the security question that I most hate showed up, again. Yes, my “worst subject in high school” was algebra. I wish they wouldn’t rub it in. On the other hand my reaction suggests that there may be something here that needs a closer look. To start with, there’s that certain twinge that comes up in reaction to this question that I associate with exposure and shame. More reflection leads me to one of my least favorite truths: I have limits, there’s plenty I don’t know and problems I don’t know how to solve. Not exactly earth-shattering news, but I think algebra in the ninth grade drove this home in a particular way. At the time I was convinced that there was some trick that would allow me to “get” the whole thing about those two trains. You remember – the one leaving from New York and the one leaving from Chicago.
Fortunately through the years and my periodic re-encounters with algebra something has become clear and of great value to me, namely that my struggle with algebra has taught me both the fact and the necessity of “not knowing”. I hate that, even though I know that life is full of algebra problems in one form or another, and not knowing is essential for learning any new thing. We are called, pushed and driven to leave our hard-earned “knowns” in order to encounter and engage the fears and frustrations – dangers and demands that are just on the other side of whatever thresholds of knowness we cling to that make life worth living.
In hindsight I think that my problem with algebra was that I wanted to learn this “new” thing, but was unable or unwilling to let go of what I’d known up to that point and allow myself to “not know”. I kept trying to “get” algebra using my old ways. I have seen many of the people in my life and in my practice suffer from their version of that same dynamic: being confronted with the challenge of something new that called for moving beyond familiar boundaries, but trying to do it while still hanging on to some previously workable adaptation. It is the classic case of trying to fit the round peg into the square hole. Sadly, and all too often, we attempt to solve the perceived problem by using our old hammers to hit the peg harder and harder to no avail. Buried in here is the call to a fuller, richer and ultimately more satisfying life. We are confronted with our resistance to the fact of having limits, of not knowing. A kind of clinging to a rigid position that looks very much like a two-year olds, “No!”
Trusting that you are still with me – the question becomes: Why am I inflicting my algebraic angst onto you? The answer is that I’m assuming each of us suffers from what I now call an Algebra Complex of some kind. This complex is characterized by an encounter with a perceived problem that doesn’t yield to our old ways. Put simply we cling to the outworn limitations of what we “know” in order to maintain whatever we perceive safe to be. Safety is a factor, but it is not the problem. The problem is that we are living out of entrenched fears and patterns that are on automatic pilot. Self-imposed limits that may need to be reconsidered in the light of new circumstances and resources that we didn’t have available when we first constructed them. Hey, they seemed like a good idea at the time.
These outmoded limits can manifest in so many different ways. Creatively: “I don’t know” – how to draw, paint, play, write.” Clinically: “I don’t know” – how to work with trauma, addictions, dreams, couples, families, individuals. Intellectually: “I don’t know” – how to understand quantum physics, deconstruction, political theory, economics. Personally: “I don’t know” – how to be open to myself, much less another human being. We end up avoiding potential in ourselves and others. We feel shame. We get angry. Our lives are smaller than they need to be. We suffer.
Ironically we call this the “comfort zone”, and most of us are all too familiar with it. For many such patterns are our oldest and most trustworthy “friends”. As a result, we tend to only move from this zone of “knowing” if we are presented with a big enough carrot or a big enough stick. The carrot can be the possibility of being vulnerable to a new relationship with a person, an idea, a food, a geographical location, a song that makes us tap our feet – in public. The stick can be just being sick and tired of being sick and tired. It can be the “hitting bottom” of AA. It can be the pain of isolation. The point is that here is where the possibility of taking a step into the unknown presents itself. Such steps require risks, courage, some version of faith, and a lot of work. And no one can guarantee where these steps will take us or what the outcome will be.
For me such a first step is an attitude of respect for the systems we have in place. They were designed to keep us as safe as possible. In their own way they have worked – even if that safety has come at greater and greater cost – and a smaller and more fearful life.
A respectful exploring of the facets of my habitual patterns in operation allows greater and greater awareness of the contexts and the triggers that have evolved and what “algebra problems” they were created to protect me from. If you start into such a process, if you take that first step, and if you wonder how to know that you’re on the right track the answer is simple: You will experience anxiety. That’s the good news because such anxiety is basically life energy looking for a place to explore and express itself in new ways. The key is to aim that anxiety. Make it an ally.
Once you get a sense of how this works you’ll begin to find your rhythm with it. Like music, like dance and like play you’ll move forward and back; you’ll soar and you’ll skin your knees. And you’ll ask yourself over and over: Is it worth the risk, the cost, the pain? The answer will change from day to day. You’ll only know when you know, and then you’ll need to let go of that knowing in order practice more not knowing. That’s all I know – for now.

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21 Comments on “A is for Algebra”

  1. Pat K Says:

    I LOVE this! Pat

  2. Todd Hayen Says:

    Very nice Allen! So well put. And this was a very needed reminder today for me, so thank you. I am reminded too of Moses and Khidr…how patience is so important, and how things so often don’t look right to start with but end up having such wisdom in the deeper encounter.

    • Gwen Says:

      My favorite part of the Algebra essay is that part about making anxiety your ally. I like the concept of dancing with an anxious experience and transforming it. I do that in my meditations, journal writing and painting. We do it in conversations when we share a burden with a friend or family member and discover it becomes lighter and more interesting.

      By the way, I hated math in school, but when I got to algebra I was much happier because there were letters involved and it seemed friendlier. I liked equations because you could prove that it was correct.

      I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  3. Betty Gillespie Says:

    Allen,
    You make so many good points. First, let me tell you that I too hate algebra and you nearly lost me with the “A word”, but I got past that first couple of sentences and stayed with ya throughout the article! Second, I love the term “algebra complex”, and I know that I suffer from it as well as a few other complexes. I agree that it takes faith, courage, and work to step into the unknown an risk getting to know what we don’t already know. You article was very inspiring and I believe I see a theme in you… Make friends with the enemy, (anxiety, vignettes, etc.). Good work Mr. Koehn!

  4. Josh Freeman Says:

    This reminds me of another bit of inspiration from a guy who almost shares your name:

    “It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.” — Alan Cohen

  5. David Milton Says:

    hi allen,
    it was great to “hear” your voice in this blog. although it has been quite some time since i saw you in person – over two years now – after reading this it seems like you are hear with me in grenada! your email is a timely one in that i am struggling with my own algebraic problems out here in tropical paradise, go figure. so thank you for the “awakening” to patience, acceptance, practice and moving forward regardless.

  6. Radish Leaf Says:

    I could figure out the trains thing; it was dancing that pretty much stopped me cold. I liked your comment, “Like music, like dance and like play you’ll move forward and back; you’ll soar and you’ll skin your knees.” Now I’m learning to dance – maybe one of these days I may even soar.

  7. KC Says:

    Thanks for your words, Alan…

    So true story:
    Like you, when I was enrolled in algebra, I hated it and understood very, very little. I stumbled my way through it. When I finished with math and realized I would never have to think about it again, I was thankful and relieved.

    Some 15 years later, after I graduated from college and entered the teaching profession. I applied and was given a job teaching science, the subject I learned in college. Along with that assignment, I was also given one Algebra class attached to my schedule. Of course, I took the job… I needed it. But I was scared and fearful about having to teach a class that I did not understand (at all) when I took it.

    But then, when I re-opened the Algebra book– the first time in many, many years– suddenly I understood it– All of it. Everything that had posed such a challenge in the past was no longer any hurdle… it was all very simple.

    I don’t believe that all is such. However, Alan, you might be surprised how adept you might be at a subject (or task) that posed such difficulty years ago… I certainly was.

  8. Carole Moritz Says:

    how did you know…thanks, I needed that…

  9. mary tesoro Says:

    Well, I actually got the big A in Algebra, and even loved it! Perhaps it had something to do with the cute boy in my class. Now however, I neither remember his name or what Algebra was even about! What I DO remember from Jr high & High school was being afraid to dance in public…unless I got drunk first! THAT was MY Algebra Complex. You ask, “Is it worth the risk, the cost, the pain” to reach beyond our shame and fear? For me, the answer is ABSOLUTELY. My biggest over the edge leap was into the dance-like arena of Aikido, which I was NOT at all good at, much to the disgust of my athletic ego. I struggled with shame off and on for years–and still do occasionally, but it has been the touchstone of my life for 28 years. Allen, I love what you wrote on this topic. How good to know that you too (Trickster himself) have struggles at the boundaries of perceived limits. It was in your Trickster class that I was “called” to dance publicly and (for me)provocatively–sober and in front of my peers no less. Thank you for that. You’re the best!

  10. funny bunny Says:

    D is for Denial
    Hi Allen,
    Reading your great and true comments regarding fear of the unknown, I am reminded of Yalom’s comments in his book on existential psychology regarding death anxiety. As Yalom put it, we all need to turn the unknown that causes us unbearable anxiety into the known that we merely fear. Per Yalom, we will go out of our way to do this, to include the creation of neurotic responses to experience. All psychopathology can in this way be looked at as a range of “inelegant responses” to the reality of death. He furthermore talked about the actual utility of the pscyhological response of denial, that stubborn mental attitude that we in the helping profession of psychology work so hard to rid ourselves and others of in order to feel better. But in its own way per Yalom, denial acts as a resource to the preservation of sanity in the face of all things psychologically overwhelming, a kind of buffer zone. Perhaps your comments regarding the typcial human response to the unknown such as algebra fits in that queue. I myself am another person bad at math who, after I finished high school, decided to pretend algebra didn’t exist, and made a point to avoid circumstances in which the subject of algebra would likely to come up. Something like the typical human response to death.

  11. Cate Says:

    I love the reframe about anxiety as a *good* sign! So often I think about anxiety as something to manage, something to diffuse, or, ideally, something to eliminate. The idea that it could be a useful indicator that I’m moving into an area of growth and new life, rather than a warning signal that I should turn around, is really wonderful.

  12. Bruce Williams Says:

    I agree with the notion of making anxiety my friend. I find going into the so called unpleasant feelings that I have is fertile ground to the decisions I made many years ago when all my decisions were emotional/feeling based decisions. Anxiety is merely me talking to me in another language. One that as an adult I have become unaccustomed to conversing in or paying attention to.

  13. Jerry DiPego Says:

    What? You didn’t do well in algebra?! Why not?! You must be an idiot! I did great in algebra. What the hell is wrong with you?

  14. heidi michelle Says:

    reminds me quite a bit of coming alive again after a period of emotional deadness. there is some comfort in the deadness, but ultimately, u r dead. there is great anxiety in the awakening, but it brings with it a real life, rather than a living death. what does my dissertation topic have 2 do with ur blog on algebra as a metaphor? lots. nicely done. amusingly, once i embraced that i didn’t understand algebra and got the most awesome tutor in the world, i not only got algebra, i had a brief but intense love affair w/math 2 the point i considered majoring in it, 2 master something i had once feared. i wonder where that would have taken me?

  15. Annie Says:

    A is for anxiety

  16. Katherine Says:

    Thanks for this…a much appreciated reminder!

  17. elizabeth Says:

    I guess I dance with anxiety when I go on a trip. An airplane trip especially. An airplane trip that takes me out of the US even more so. Part of it is getting older and part of it is the”comfort zone” of the valley. So when I can, I go on these trips because I’m still curious about the rest of the world and because I need to prove to myself that I can in fact negotiate my way through airports, new cities, with strangers, etc.

    I’ve got some other anxieties on my dance card…


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