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Why We Must Live Beyond the Numbers

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom, author and blogger
05/17/21  8:00 AM PST
Live Beyond the Numbers

I was listening to an interview recently with Sanjay Gupta about his new book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. If you are unfamiliar with Gupta, he is a neurosurgeon based in Atlanta, Georgia, and also the chief medical correspondent for CNN. In this interview, Gupta was describing the difficulty in getting people to invest in brain health because so much of it is unmeasurable. I laughed to myself at this statement of the obvious. Having dealt with many medical professionals after my son’s diagnosis of cerebral palsy at age one, I am quite familiar with the tendency to look at the numbers, not the kid.

But there is a truth to this that goes beyond the special needs community. Gupta is bringing recognition to an idea that seems almost too simple to be true: we cannot place higher importance on something because it is quantifiable.

Think of heart health. You have a scan of your heart in which the cardiologist measures the calcium build up in your arteries. You then leave with a percentage of blockage and risk for heart attack. It feels good to have those numbers. It feels powerful, like corralling the wild and unknowable future. You leave with instructions: Don’t eat the cheeseburger. Don’t smoke. Exercise three to five times a week. Do these things and you can prevent a heart attack. But can you? What about the impact of stress? Or loneliness? Because those things are not quantifiable, medical professionals are much less likely to prescribe rest, meditation, walks in nature, or reaching out to a friend as part of a lifestyle change. Up close, the numbers rule, but when you take a step back, the larger picture demands less calculable actions.

But we are a society who loves numbers. We watch the stock market and we live our days set by a clock that we all complain about when daylight savings ends. We assign grades starting at age six that follow us into our twenties. We watch our 401Ks and put money into retirement accounts and hope that all this juggling will equal a measurable amount of happiness and peace in the end.

And it’s true, sometimes numbers can be good. They help us evaluate learning in school and health and unemployment rates and so much more. They give us important data. But they are not everything.

Before my son Charlie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he was diagnosed with paraventricular leukomalacia. One month into his neonatal intensive care stay, his doctor showed me a scan that revealed damage in all four quadrants of his brain. There is was in black and white – evidence of a traumatic event that we did not witness and could not trace back to a cause. But that doctor could not tell me what this brain damage would mean for my son. He could quantitate this, but he could not predict his quality of life. And for this I am thankful.

Because Charlie is nine now and he has a wonderful life that does not show up on his developmental chart or his IEP reports at school. He rides horses and uses a wheelchair and loves to read. Charlie is incalculably happy most of the time, more so than me, his mother, who tends to worry and ruminate over all the essential and nonessential bits of life. If anyone is going to live to be one hundred, it is Charlie.

And this is why I both laugh at Gupta’s statement and also applaud it. We must live beyond numbers. Choose a job that makes you happy. Take the walk that clears your head. Eat the dinner that someone cooks for you. Focus on the things that enrich your life in all the immeasurable ways.

child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom, author and blogger.
Read her blog, The Mom Gene.
Follow her on Facebook.

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