Taking Stock

WHAT I LEARNED AT THE ACCOUNTANT'S

My favorite cartoon shows an important executive speaking into the phone, a cross expression on his face: “A billion is a thousand million?” he exclaims. “Why wasn’t I informed of this?” I sent a copy of the cartoon to my accountant, so that he would know exactly with whom he was dealing. Addition and subtraction are about as far as my arithmetic skills extend, and even there I’m not exactly reliable. Algebra makes my head hurt.

The funny thing is, I’m not ashamed to admit it, and that puts me in league with a lot of other people. While illiteracy is recognized by almost everyone as a major impediment to progress, financial stability, and self-esteem, innumeracy seems amusing. People even boast about it. Yet all of us use and rely on math every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Counting, matching, sorting, measuring-they are all mathematics. From making sure that each bowl of ice cream has a spoon to go with it, to stacking the shirts with the shirts and the pants with the pants, we use mathematical skills all day long. I once thought that math was beyond me, a galaxy to which I was denied entrance. But now, having seen the way it can be taught (particularly when it is done in an activity-based style, as it must be for the children I work with who have special needs), I know this universe has many doors, and that being good with numbers is only one of them.

I have been thinking about numbers a great deal of late. The organization I work with here in India is in a small funding crisis, and I have been forced to look at every single line item with a fine eye to decide whether the expense can be justified and, if so, how to pay for it. In the process, I have discovered the surprisingly moral language of accounting. Think about the words we use routinely when referring to budgets: reconcile, balance, justify, vouch-even accounting itself. These are large concepts and rightly so. In its simplest form, accounting is the process of balancing what comes in with what goes out, but in a wider sense it is about how we live our lives. What do we do with the gifts we have been given? Do the numbers all add up? When it comes to the bottom line, are we solvent or in arrears?

The treasurer of our organization-a wise and generous man-scolded me gently as I was fretting about our latest financial crisis: There is nothing, he assured me, that can’t be sorted out. Tell me what’s worrying you. I can tell you how to fix it.

His remedies, of course, are neither magic nor simple. There are hard truths to confront and difficult decisions to be made. Stringent cutbacks here, more careful planning there. A concerted outreach to donors coupled with a systematic approach to grant writing and organizational funding. The most interesting thing to me is his refusal to be intimidated by the numbers. Show me how you earn and spend your money, he said, and I’ll tell you who you are.

This is, perhaps, precisely why so many of us are troubled by our accounts. They are too revealing, and we prefer not to look at ourselves so closely. But there is nothing like the clear light of day in an accountant’s office for achieving peace of mind. Difficult as it may be-and it usually is-to right the course, I now find it strangely comforting to look at our long list of expenses incurred and the rather short list of income received. There it is, in plain black and white: salaries paid out and fees taken in; rent, train fares to conferences, stationery costs (astronomical), gasoline (shocking), “staff welfare” (all those cups of tea)... What do we value enough to pay for? What can we eliminate and still do the work we have been entrusted with?

And where is the money to pay for it coming from? There it is again: the evidence, in one donation after another-some small, some large-of the many people who have enough faith in what we are doing to make an entry in their expense list, to write us a check, to pay for our salaries, our rent, our tea.

If God has a language, a dear friend told me, it must be mathematics. Math, he said, is all about harmony, order, balance: What else would God speak? Nothing in creation is random; everything is part of a pattern, and every part is essential to the whole. Droughts and floods, though difficult and sometimes agonizing, are nonetheless part of a natural cycle whose wisdom is always known to God, if not immediately to us. And while disability and the work required to incorporate it into our lives may seem like miscalculations of cosmic proportions, in math class we see it all in perspective: integers, prime numbers, balanced equations, infinity! There is a pattern to everything, whether we see it or not. A negative number here has a positive counterpart there (and positive does not equal good any more than negative equals bad). A funding crisis now may be just what we need to prepare for the next wave of abundance.

Albert Einstein pointed out that “God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically.” Special children teach us how to count all over again, gently reminding us that their place value has already been assigned. It’s up to us now to do the math.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 
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Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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