The mournful question, “When am I ever going to use this?” always followed the presentation of seemingly irrelevant concepts in my math classes. One of the highlights of teaching for me was trying to give a good answer to that just-try-and-convince-me-if-you-can question.
One mathematical topic that had a “secret” application, that went much farther than the immediate, was the unit on integration.
Integration, or in its verb form “to integrate,” is nothing more than a process like subtracting or multiplying. It can vary from being quite simple to being overwhelmingly complicated and, thankfully, with the onset of computer, is probably done by them instead of by hand most of the time.
Integration enables us to find the area of an oval or ellipse, the length of a line that curves instead of staying straight, or the volume of a vase, all things that basic geometry usually cannot do. Not that we encounter these every day, but when you go into the world of engineering or architecture or design, there was usually an acceptance that it is important to get the exact answer for such –at least I hoped so.
The “secret” side of integration that always was inside my mind while I was explaining the mathematics on the outside, was the importance of integrating into our lives all that life sends our way–rather than its opposite: reaching a certain point in our adulthood and from there building barriers to all that comes from that point on.
No, I didn’t go into this with 17-year olds–or maybe I just hinted at it ever so slightly, knowing full well that decisions such as this would be theirs soon enough. I was hoping and praying that the natural openness and curiosity of adolescence would carry over throughout their lives and not end in a kind of all-knowing arrogance at age 50.
The point here is this: the process of integration–constantly bringing new experiences, new attitudes, new ideas into our life–is a lifelong process. It is life-giving and it is invaluable to our growth–particularly if we are dedicated to the life that Jesus laid out for us: a constant growth into God.
Hard as that may be at times, the “payoff” is worth it–for like my high school math students when they learned a new skill, the more we learn to stretch and grow and integrate, the more we are able “to do,” the more we are able “to be,” than we ever dreamed of becoming back in those teen years.
Photo by Margaret Ann Pilewski, OSB