Math Geek Mom: What the Jesuits taught me about being a Mom

Patterns are central to math and statistics. If we add two of something to two more of that something, we get four of it. We say that something is “statistically significant” if we see patterns in the data that would not be expected to show up randomly. And we can write patterns, such as the famed “Fibonacci Sequence” by looking at the previous values and defining the newest value in terms of the previous ones.

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July 29, 2010

Patterns are central to math and statistics. If we add two of something to two more of that something, we get four of it. We say that something is “statistically significant” if we see patterns in the data that would not be expected to show up randomly. And we can write patterns, such as the famed “Fibonacci Sequence” by looking at the previous values and defining the newest value in terms of the previous ones.

Such patterns appear in life, as we repeatedly hold celebrations during the darkest, coldest months of the year and put school on a pause during the warmest months. One pattern that shows up year after year is the day, July 31st, designated each year to celebrate the founder of the Jesuit order. This group of men is sometimes called “an order of Catholic priests known for founding colleges with very good basketball teams.”

As I did last year at this time, I want to take a minute to reflect on what that soldier from the 1500s had to say that has influenced how I (a 21st century non-soldier) have become the person I am today. For, as I have mentioned many times, I spent my intellectually formative years learning and working with the Jesuits. One cannot spend such a large portion of their lives with a group of such amazing people without picking up some of their approaches to life. This influence was made greater by the influence of several friends from each stage of my Jesuit education who were members of this order, but who have since left to marry and become “fathers” in the more traditional sense of the word.

The most important thing that the Jesuits taught me is that the world is a fascinating place that has many wonders to share. They taught me to study this world with not just the eyes of a scholar, but also the eyes of a mystic. The Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, looked at the fossils he studied and reported on them in what can best be described as a mix of science and poetry. The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins summed up this approach when he proclaimed “Glory be to God for dappled things.” I spend much of my life these days testing for statistically significant “dappled things” in data that describe the economic world.

I would like to think that I am passing on this wonder to my daughter, but I actually think that it is she who is teaching me to look at the world with eyes of joy. Last week, she came home from her summer camp with the shells of two dead bugs, with which she was fascinated. They had found them while exploring the woods with her camp, as they do on a regular basis. I was kind of disgusted with them, and must admit that I probably played a role in their subsequent disappearance. She, however, quickly gave them names.

Central to the Jesuit tradition is a series of reflections, known as the “Spiritual Exercises” that help form new Jesuits into the priests they are to become. This series of meditations ask them to put themselves in a story, usually biblical, and to try to imagine what one would experience as part of that story. Being a mother requires such a great sense of imagination, something that I realized recently when I saw my younger sister pointing out “castles” (mansions) to our daughters while we were on vacation. I was not surprised, then, to hear her describe a bridal party as a group of “princesses”. The little girls were thrilled.

As one is asked to imagine oneself in various stories, they are also encouraged to imagine what each sense would report in those situations. This is a particularly important skill for me, since I lost my sense of smell when a tumor grew deep in my brain, where such senses are processed. Conversely, my daughter has a particularly acute sense of smell. In order for me to truly understand the world in which she lives, I have to draw upon smells that remain accessible to me only through my imagination and my memories.

Perhaps most central to the Jesuit philosophy is the concept of “indifference”. One is asked to give up all preconceived notions and plans of what one wants for one’s life and only then to seek the best option. When a little girl was placed in my arms, my mind immediately began to imagine things like ballet recitals, frilly dresses and perhaps a princess wedding some day. When it became clear that my daughter (who looks like a china doll) does not like ballet, but prefers baseball and basketball, I began to realize that my job as a mother was to help her find her own dreams, separate from mine.

Perhaps the most important lesson the Jesuits taught me was how to leave them. After spending almost 1/2 of my life with them, it became clear that I would need to seek employment elsewhere. I was lucky to find Ursuline College, and so, with tears in my eyes, I found a new and better vision of where my life would go. Someday, I will need to teach this lesson to my daughter.

I remember once, when she was about 3 years old, watching her pack her teddy bear into her backpack and announce to me “ok, mommy, I’m leaving” as she marched out the front door. I realized that someday she, a grown woman, would leave me with more in her backpack than her teddy bear, and that I would need to teach her enough before then to make such a journey successful. And maybe, just maybe, she, too, will be going off to study with the Jesuits.

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