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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Fear Of Numbers–Existential Angst

“You’re numbers are a bit up”, the doctor told Augusta Janney, “but nothing to worry about.” Augusta’s bad cholesterol was holding steady, but her good cholesterol had lost a few points. “Come back in six months.  We like to track these things.”

Augusta kept all the lab results sent by her doctor.  In the old days patients never got more than a “Fine” or “Take these”; but now every number was recorded, filed, and shared. She couldn’t make heads or tails out of most of them.  She knew that they were indicators of liver and kidney function, predictors of heart distress, diabetes, and infection; but she wasn’t sure which was which.  She remembered her father talking about bilirubin counts and prothrombin time, incidental detail he added in his long and personal stories of patients with strange illnesses.  Whether the values of hematocrit, reactive lymphocytes, basophils, MCV, MCH, MCBC, and neutrophils were  3.8 Million/uL or 850 cells/uL, or 25 pg, or twice that, the list was still only a medical liturgy, a secular chronicle of who begat whom in the genealogy of her blood chemistry.

Lab report 

For now her numbers were satisfactory.  They added up to a reasonably healthy woman, even a very healthy one; but they could change in a flash. The generative mechanisms within her body could be failing without anyone knowing it.  How could even a good mechanic foresee the insidious pressures, blockages, and buildups that suddenly forced a perfectly good engine to start misfiring.  Changing the oil every 5000 miles (eating a balanced diet) guaranteed nothing but only lessened the risk of failure. The next time she visited the doctor, her hematocrit levels might have hit the roof, suggesting serious system failure.

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For the time being, the list of biochemical blood elements and their numbers were reassuring.  They defined her at one point in time and that definition was within acceptable parameters.

A number of years ago Augusta had been victim of credit fraud.  A Nigerian ring of sophisticated hackers had penetrated all three credit bureaus, stolen her identity, and proceeded to rack up thousands of dollars at stores she had never heard of.  There was a Nigerian Augusta Janney driving around Manassas with a Virginia driver’s license in her name.  As far as VDOT was concerned, the African Augusta was the real McCoy and not her.

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Augusta thought that clearing her record would be easy.  All she would have to do was to call the stores which had sold merchandise to Nigerians using her name and record, tell them that the sale was fraudulent, and that would be that. “How do we know you are who you say you are?” she was repeatedly asked. No matter how much she insisted on her identity, store representatives were unconvinced. “Prove it”, they said, “and we will clear your account.”

How could she prove that she wasn’t Augusta Janney, 2342 Brandywine Street, Washington, DC and not Augusta Janney of 43454 Clarendon Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia?  She had panicked. “An existential moment”, she told her friends many years later after the whole affair had ended; but at the moment, she felt compromised and violated in some very profound way.  She had always taken herself and her identity for granted, and now she was being told by grocery clerks that she wasn’t, or worse that she might not be.

Her numbers which attested to her identity could no longer be trusted. Her social security number, date of birth, drivers license, credit cards, bank account; and for that matter her academic record at Bard and NYU no longer attested to her existence.  In fact they denied it.

Thanks to her and to many other victims of the Nigerian credit fraud ring who testified before the whole host of government agencies with some interest in the case, the regulations were changed much more in favor of the consumer; but once bitten, twice shy; and Augusta took extreme precautions to protect her identity. Her husband thought she was becoming seriously paranoid when he heard the grinding of the paper shredder at all hours of the night or when the paid her bills the way poor people did – in person, in cash, and by hand.  Money orders replaced checks, and she did her best to exist the currency market, exchanging much of her savings into precious metals stored in the most secure vault in Washington.

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Things go worse not better as electronic surveillance intruded on every aspect of her life. There were new numbers which defined her.  Her house had GPS coordinates. Police cameras noted her passages on Western Avenue with increasing precision – time of day, exact speed and direction.  For years she refused to buy a smartphone and stuck with the most basic telephonic models. She spent thousands on highly-specialized computer geeks to secure her home system, to create double and triple firewalls and the most sophisticated virus and worm protection outside the Pentagon.

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Even at the most elemental level, she saw frightening numbers around her.  Every fluctuation in weight had meaning.  A pound or two gained over a few days meant that her internal numbers were affected – more stress on her heart, more fat and lipids coursing through her bloodstream, more sugar and bilirubin. When Size 6 simply wouldn’t fit, she bought Size 8, but only with great anxiety.  Her car had just clocked 100K, and she became obsessed with the odometer.  Each flip meant that the Camry’s lifespan was shortening and hers along with it. Advancing mileage was a surrogate number for her age.

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Everyone has their own very personal reasons for turning to religion, and Augusta’s was no more surprising than most.  A soul after all was the very antithesis of a collation of numbers.  It was unique, complete, uniform, and eternal.  There was nothing to be calculated about an immortal soul.  No fraying around the edges, no chances of a sticky tappet or leaking oil pan.  No pull-by date except for expiry.  Yes, maintenance was required, and care had to be taken to preserve and curate divine grace; but all in all it gave her great comfort to know that in God’s eyes she was not a number or a collection of numbers. 

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She hoped that she would be chosen in the last roundup but quickly chased images of the mob (incalculable numbers) that would be clamoring at the gates of heaven at the parousia. If chosen, she would have been selected for the integrity of her soul and being.  God doesn’t play dice with the universe, Einstein once said. nor does he disaggregate the human soul into numbers on a balance sheet.

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Augusta of course had residual paranoia.  She still riffled through the mail every day looking for her summons for jury duty.  Her juror number was not just a computer-generated random ID for use to help clear the docket.  It was one more way of dehumanizing her, putting her on a list, and ignoring her ‘essentiality’. Yet she didn’t lose any sleep over it as she used to, nor did she panic when facing her car registration, telephone bill, or tax assessment.  She prayed to God to keep her whole until He took her, which she hoped would not be for a while; and when on her knees by the bedside she saw herself as a young girl who knew nothing of numbers nor of the soul.

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Facing existential crisis, others become Nihilists, Atheists, or radical determinists. People’s lives are as meaningless as Nietzsche observed– billiard balls on a universal pool table randomly clacking away, sent in all directions for no reason at all incidentally struck and propelled according to laws of motion and geometrical angle. Others – the few, the envied, and the ideal – are happy hedonists who are oblivious to anything existential. 

Augusta Janney lived a long and reasonably happy life once she shed her fear of numbers and gained a soul.  The unwanted intrusions into her nicely fabricated world were few enough to cause no long-term concern and anxiety. However the only visible number in her life was on her mailbox.  Better be safe than sorry.

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