Solving for X

Dear Will:

We’re doing geometry. Or I should say, Seth is doing geometry. His old man, meanwhile, is staring at a page full of triangles and barely familiar symbols (AB||CD, anybody?) and thinking to himself: “Did I really know this stuff once?”

Probably not. I do remember enough about the ninth grade at Goddard Junior High School to recall my teacher’s name, and I may even have received a reasonably good grade. But I also remember that even before I left high school it was clear to me that I hadn’t really managed to catch the geometry wave. So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I respond to Seth’s desperate request for help with his homework.

I stare dumbly at the page. Nothing clicks. I resort to the standard parent fallback ploy of reading through the textbook in a vain attempt to relearn what once I must have known, but I’m missing the foundation necessary to make the examples comprehensible. So I take to asking Seth questions of my own, and suddenly it is as if Seth were helping me with my homework. His patience wanes.

Then, a breakthrough: I review Question 22 and it occurs to me that it can be solved using algebra. Algebra! I remember algebra! I think I can even DO a little algebra! Clearly more excited than Seth, I set to work, cross-multiplying happily and even deploying something I think we used to call the FOIL method. I proceed a little awkwardly, with uneven jabs and starts, but before long it’s clear that I have calculated my way to the right answer. And I can prove it! Alas, Seth has long since given up on me and headed off to get ready for bed. I consider high-fiving myself but think better of it.

Still, I’m amazed. I learned my algebra from Mr. Burgess almost 40 years ago. Nevertheless, there was the FOIL method (or whatever it was called), tucked somewhere in the folds of my brain, waiting to be teased out of hiding during an hour of father-son bonding over homework. And the rules that applied when I was learning algebra in 1973 or 1974 still apply today. If I had been given that same problem by Mr. Burgess, x would have equaled 14.5, just as it does tonight.

That’s the singular beauty of math—or, at any rate, the kind of math that an English major like me can understand. There is always a right answer. In just about every other discipline there is an element of subjectivity, so that personal preference or judgment or opinion play an important role in determining what’s right or what’s true. And that truth might change as new theories are tested and new facts established. But with math, 2+2 will always equal 4, today and tomorrow and for generations to come.

There are other absolute truths much more important than those that govern algebra, of course. The existence of God, for instance, and our divine relationship to Him. The eternal purpose of life and the Plan that governs all human existence. The divine Sonship of Jesus Christ. These things are absolute, unchanging and unaffected by one’s personal opinion or belief. And just as the laws of mathematics can be proven, so can the eternal truths I’ve mentioned.

Years ago, Spencer W. Kimball gave a discourse (highly recommended) in which he said the following:

We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the Spirit. These truths are “independent” in their spiritual sphere and are to be discovered spiritually, though they may be confirmed by experience and intellect (see D&C 93:30). The great prophet Jacob said that “the Spirit speaketh the truth. . . . Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

The prophet Moroni put it even more simply: “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). All things. Absolutely.

Except for maybe geometry. I’m still not so sure about that stuff.


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