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If We Could Teach Only One: Forgiveness or Math?

Math leads to important technological advances; forgiveness diminishes hatred.

Key points

  • The choices we make in this life may aid or hinder purposeful goals including how we treat others and even how we treat ourselves.
  • While knowledge of math and science can help us avoid certain diseases, these alone will not cure the hatred that also kills.
  • A predominant focus on math and science may keep hidden from us a revitalizing sense of purpose and even heroism.
  • Is your choice to seek pleasure and avoid pain or to lead a purposeful life in which you strive to see the inherent worth of all?
KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

I teach a class on the psychology of forgiveness to undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This past week saw a spirited debate when I asked this to the class: Suppose we are in an alternative universe in which you can teach children only mathematics or forgiveness. You cannot teach both. Which would you choose---mathematics or forgiveness---and why?

The dialogue below is a composite of that discussion along with similar dialogues I have had concerning this same alternative-universe theme:

Math advocate: Math can lead to important technological discoveries such as a cure for smallpox or polio. I definitely would teach mathematics because as you can see, it literally can save lives as it unites with science and technology.

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

Forgiveness advocate: Yes, but dying of disease is not the only way to leave this world. For example, if people keep fighting each other, would it not be best to equip people with the antidote to the disease of hatred? How many people have died in wars because those who attack fail to see the true humanity in those who are attacked. The failure to see the inherent worth in those on “the other side” has killed far more people than should have happened.

Math advocate: Perhaps, but if we can reduce hunger and want through science and the mathematics that support science, then people may not hurt each other so much.

Forgiveness advocate: That clearly is not the case as you look at the millions of people killed in wars in the most scientifically advanced societies in human history in the 20th century. In fact, it was the mathematics, the science, and the technology that contributed to those deaths.

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

Math advocate: Even so, I would prefer to have a full refrigerator and be free of pain than to struggle without the supports of modern technology, supported by mathematics.

Forgiveness advocate: There exist transcendental forces beyond the understanding from the senses. It seems that your goal is physical comfort. My goal, in contrast, is to grow in my humanity, to become more human and more loving. Forgiving others is heroic because you willingly reach out in love to those who have hurt you, but you watch your back so the injustice does not continue.

Math advocate: You are an idealist and unrealistic. People will continue to hurt each other. It is part of the human condition. I would prefer to be as pain-free as possible even when those wayward people start wars. I will take pragmatism over idealism every time.

Forgiveness advocate: Perhaps the call for universal forgiveness education is an ideal for now, but my call for forgiveness to pervade societies never has been tried at any time in modern history and look at the devastation that we have had to endure. If this idea catches on, it no longer is an idealistic fantasy. In fact, scientific studies, using mathematics, have shown that forgiveness education reduces anger and depression and can increase cooperation.

Math advocate: See? You just agreed with me. You support forgiveness education through the mathematics of science.

Forgiveness advocate: Yes, but I can support forgiveness education through common sense and philosophy. If we can learn to love more deeply and more widely by seeing the worth in others, this by itself is rational support for forgiveness education, without the mathematics.

Math advocate: When I look at the amount of struggle needed to be a great forgiver and to be a great mathematician, I think we can pick up math skills faster than chasing after someone who broke our heart. Your approach is too hard and so will not be realized. Pass the algebra book, if you would, please. I want to enhance modern civilization.

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

Forgiveness advocate: And your point seems to support my view that forgiveness is needed more than math. We need people in society to take up the banner of struggle, of effortful work, as a noble sense of purpose that seems to be sorely lacking in modern technological societies. What is the end point of existence as a norm in most modern societies: to seek pleasure and avoid pain? It seems to me that such a goal, which leads to nowhere, actually increases pain, such as the pain of depression and purposelessness. I will take a sense of purpose even if technology is not so well developed. Understanding forgiveness and willingly practicing it can give a strong sense of meaning and purpose to one’s life.

Math advocate: Yet, I still say that those who know math can create the technology that can overcome poverty, make life less painful, and that, too, is an improvement of the human condition. Why would you want to deprive people of their right to food, clothing, and shelter?

Forgiveness advocate: Such an emphasis is good. I am not arguing against the basics of life. Yet, if this is our primary focus, that emphasis can keep hidden certain truths about the human condition, such as this: We can become more human as we willingly say yes to loving others for their sake. You cannot get that from a jar of aspirin or from a handful of money or even from a roof over your head. If I had my choice, would I choose the well-developed home or the well-developed heart? I think if we all had well-developed hearts, we would fight for the well-developed home for those who do not have it.

All right, readers. You have heard the debate. It now is your turn. You are in the alternative universe. You can teach the next generation, before they reach adulthood, only about mathematics or about forgiveness. Which do you choose and why?