What mathematics taught me about suffering

Jan Abraham Smuts discovers important life lessons through the self-study of mathematics

Mathematics has always been my greatest source of academic joy but also my greatest source of academic turmoil. It is a tug-of-war between the excitement brought about by curiosity versus the suffering required for mental flexibility.

It always bothered me when teachers could not explain mathematics to a student in simple terms. Not understanding something like mathematics is suffering in itself. However, some of that suffering can be a necessary and beneficial step towards self-discovery.

Ever since my study of mathematics went beyond simple arithmetic, I always found that I understood mathematics better after studying it for myself rather than listening to someone explain it to me. I found that sometimes you grasp concepts quickly and other times you need more time to think about them. Unfortunately, the public education system does not allow students such time – leading to suffering yet again. This is the reason I opted to homeschool myself for the last three years of my secondary education. Obviously, this is not something anyone should and can do but my academic self-studying taught me that suffering is sometimes a necessity. The ways in which mathematics has contributed to these insights will be further explored as we go along. In essence, it is my personal interest and drive to self-study mathematics rather than my teachers of mathematics that assisted me in my journey of discovery about the necessity of suffering.

I am someone who wants to know the origin of what I am studying and I want to understand why I am putting in the effort to study whatever it may be. This is very difficult, tiring and even frustrating sometimes. Teachers are always asked the question “Why do we study this if we are never going to use it in our lives?”. Nonetheless, studying mathematics has helped me to discover the purposes behind what I study and has helped me to answer this intriguing question.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

The reason mathematics in particular helped me to discover the purposes behind what I study is the presupposition in mathematics that there is always some answer to be found for every mathematical problem. What then makes it worth your while to keep on struggling when you do not find this answer easily? For me, finding that answer is worth pursuing due to the greater insight and understanding that it instils in you. Therefore, I see doing mathematics as a kind of voluntary suffering. It taught me that if you cannot find the solution to the problem then you are not approaching it from the right perspective or you are ignorant about something. This pushes you beyond your current understanding to gain some knowledge that you do not yet have. You do not know what you do not know but most importantly, there is some answer – and you can find it. This notion of an attainable insight or reality beyond your reach is akin to hope and is what fuels the desire for such voluntary suffering.

Hence, based on the assumption that there must be some origin and purpose behind the mathematics that we study combined with the realization that in most of our lives this mathematics will not have a direct application, I came to understand that mathematics must then teach us some skills that are applicable in our everyday lives. One such skill is captured in the words of one of my lecturers, “Maths and logic is the same thing… logic… maths… the same thing”. So, something like the logic you acquire through studying mathematics is a universally applicable skill to all areas of your life. Subsequently, mathematics has further taught me that suffering is oftentimes an essential part of self-discovery and is required if you want to reach your goal or the answer to any challenge you might face in your daily life.

What I learned then from mathematics is that it is the voluntary acceptance of suffering, associated with the enduring effort you put into solving a problem, that makes you a more discerning and authentic human being.

Jan Abraham

First-year student, BA(Humanities), Stellenbosch University

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