There is a math principle that is mind-jarring.
Anything greater than zero is an infinite increase. Zero is zero. It is nothing. Therefore, even teeny tiny 0.000000000(a bunch of 0s)00000000(and a whole lot more 0s)1 is infinitely greater than nothing.
Skip numbers and move to people. A person depressed and overweight, hypertensive with Type 2 diabetes mellitus sits around mindlessly watching TV. In a moment of cosmic importance, they awake to the fact that their life is not fulfilling. They are tired of their present state of being and want to change. They get up. It is a struggle and takes a few oomphs and groans. They finally reach the tube and turn it off. Slowly, they open the front door, climb down a couple of steps and go outside to walk to the corner and back.
It is an incalculable achievement. It is so huge the spouse and children call it a miracle. The person went from doing nothing to doing something. That is an infinite increase.
This is a simple, heroic act. It was nothing to get up. It was everything to get up.
For those starting at zero, they must remember that even itsy bitsy additions to the universe are huge. Small is big. Change does not have to be disruptive in volume or degree to be important. Even the action of thought to do better is beyond and far above the cold and dead zero. Pulling the plug on TV is big. Opening the door and stepping outside is a major accomplishment. Deciding to decide is infinitesimally huge.
It is the change that is infinite, not the amount of change.
However, for whomever is in a similar state of doing nothing, there is a problem with this principle. If they look at their nothingness, any change — knowing it would be an infinite difference — may frighten them. Staring boundlessness in the face can be extremely intimidating. Their eyes glaze over at the enormity of it all. They stop before they start.
A second dilemma is that when they see infinity, they start to think that they have to make infinite alterations. They can’t just get up and walk. They think they have to do an ultra marathon or an Ironman. Anything less than perfect is not worth starting. Newly awakened sleepers who start off too fast often hurt themselves, then quit.
Lastly, it can be scary to know that a simple act can be so powerful that it will create an infinite amount of cheer and back-slapping. Overwhelming attention makes some people uncomfortable. It is safer being back home in front of the telly than to deal with too much congratulations.
The solution is not to stare at the endless zeros but the simple number one at the end. Sometimes the enormity of change is viewed more from the size of the increase from zero to infinity than from the minuscule adjustment needed to make the seemingly impossible happen.
Further, there are not infinite bests in the world. There is only one personal, finite best. The contest is with oneself, not the billions of other people in the world. Starting the process is the leap from nothing to something to infinity.
Everyone should not be afraid of infinity. Buzz Lightyear isn’t, and neither are mathematicians. They write and say it all the time. Math whizzes are not whiteboard eraser-throwing “number ninjas.” If they aren’t scared, we shouldn't be.Comment on this story
Nonetheless, to go from zero to a really big number is not always well tolerated. Some people get motion sickness changing from nothing to something. Fear can scuttle the launch.
What if the inanimate doesn’t move? Digging up their cable or throwing bricks at their satellite dish won’t work. Screaming in their ears most likely will fail. Pushing them through the door will only cause a hernia.
Maybe the world needs to move from the love of nothing to an acceptance of infinity.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org