Being certain about the unknown

As a student in beginning algebra, I remember spending the entire first six weeks of the class absolutely mystified as to the meaning of an x. The explanation that x could stand for any number thoroughly confused me. I reasoned that if x could stand for any quantity, the principle of mathematics must be on fairly shaky ground. Or more likely, algebra was just too abstract and difficult for me to understand.

But one day, after many patient explanations from my teacher and my dad, I suddenly realized that x stood for the specific answer to the problem at hand. How comforting it was to realize that even though the answer to the problem was unknown to me initially—otherwise there would be no question to answer—I could be certain of finding the solutions to the mathematical problems I was confronted with. With this understanding I no longer found x baffling, and later enjoyed several years of courses in mathematics. I could see that one need not fear the unknown as long as the mathematical principle is governing.

Over the years I have found it useful to remember this illustration, for uncertainty is one of the more challenging situations modern man must cope with. In most of our lives there are many unknowns. At times we may not only be tempted to be fearful over how our individual lives will turn out, but we may also be deeply worried about the future of our families and of nations; agitated over global issues; or perhaps nervous about the direction of the economy. Increasingly world opinion is asserting that it is impossible for us to feel safe and secure because existence is just one long series of x's.

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An exchange that heals
October 17, 1983

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