Life is Trigonometry. Ugh.


Selah Companion

I love school. With all the rules and routines and rewards. Predictable. Solvable. Filled with promise. If you work hard, study hard, and obey the rules, you will be a success. You will win.

With all the rules and routines and rewards. Predictable. Solvable. Filled with promise. If you work hard, study hard, and obey the rules, you will be a success. You will win.

I love algebra. And geometry. With all the formulas and axioms, and theorems. Predictable. Solvable. Always constant. Always true. You can trust the math. The answer is always there.

You may need to work a formula for a couple of hours, but the answer is always there. You will win.

After Algebra II, of course, comes trigonometry. And the prestige of being in trig. With smart kids. With the elite. I was elite, on my way to winning. (Pre-Calc, we liked to call it. It sounded lovely.) And trigonometry started promising enough. There were formulas and laws, and I liked that. Knowing how to solve angles and lengths with few facts felt like secret code work. But very soon after sine, cosine, and tangent appeared, it all went haywire. Now it was up to me to determine which formula to use and when. Well, how was I supposed to know that? Where were the rules, the formulas, and the predictability? Waves rolled over me and took me under.

While I still had hope, we went on a cross-country band trip. Math nerds, naturally, we were also in band together. One parent chaperone was a professional mathematician. While traveling down the road, we were going to get three straight days of math tutoring from an expert. I drooled. This was my chance to recover. Alas, five minutes into the first math lesson, I was lost. More lost than in class as the small cadre delved deeper and faster with instant feedback fueling their minds. Oh, how I wanted to keep up with them. Be one of them. I was not. I didn’t even understand their questions.

At least my trig teacher had a heart. If we failed a test, we could come in early on Tuesday mornings for reteaching, and then on Thursday before school, we could retake the test. No matter how well we did, the highest score we could get was seventy percent, a C. Through his kindness and my parents’ generosity in driving me twenty miles to school twice a week; I passed trigonometry with a seventy percent. While it devastated my GPA, it satisfied my math credit requirement to get into college. I abandoned math and excelled in language and social sciences.

While smart, I was no longer elite. I would not win.

Still goal-oriented, I headed to college and excelled in economics, filled with formulas as it is. Still control driven, I became a teacher. And soon after that, a wife and, instantly, a stepmother. At first, living by the formulas felt good and brought success. Work hard, behave, dig deep, attend church, and love your family. But as life soldiered on, it felt like trigonometry all over again. Which formula works here? Pull up your bootstraps or release the reins? Follow your gut or stay in line? Never give up or get off a dead horse. If you have taught, if you have parented, if you have partnered, if you have lived, you have experienced the disorientation that life can bring. A time when each option seems equally confusing, promising, and dangerous, when formulas that used to work fall short; no axiom will do here.

Wikipedia says trigonometry is a branch of mathematics that studies relationships. Well, now that makes sense. I wish we’d had Wikipedia forty years ago. The relationship between angles and sides, triangles and circles, always has and will always exist. It takes humans a bit of time to figure out those relationships to make a formula to define them, but the formula comes from the relationship; the relationship does not come from the formula.

And so it is with life. Relationships always have and will always exist.

In the beginning, was the Word, and Word was with God, and Word was God. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. I am in you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. Love God. Love each other.

For centuries fellow control seekers have tried to put these relationships into formulas, but usually, we end up disoriented or worse. The driver is the relationship, not the formula. Trigonometry.

I’m in a tough spot these days. It feels like the lost moment on the band bus when I realized I had no clue what was going on when my identity and confidence slipped away like the freeway under the bus. One of the chaperones saw me turn around that day, watched me shut my trig book, and slide into my seat. He came and asked if I wanted some help. Disoriented and hopeless, I said, “No.” He asked if I was sure, and I turned him away. That girl taught me a lesson.

This time I am saying, “Yes! Please help me.” Without guidance, I am grasping for formulas that explain the situation, but none are working. Finally, realizing the solution is in the relationships, that listening and not analyzing is the path forward, I relinquish control. I start counseling this week. It’s unpredictable and unbelievably frightening. It would be much easier to turn around, sigh, and sink into my seat.

What I know now is that trigonometry was still hard even for that cadre of kids on the bus that day who understood the tutorial. Life is hard. And it’s not about winning or being elite. It’s about relationships.

Life is trigonometry. Love.

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-Debora Buerk, Editor