When I was in graduate school I took a lot of statistics classes. Really, a lot of them. I don’t remember now the exact number of credit hours I had in statistics but it was more than 30 hours. I like statistics. I found them illuminating.
When I did comprehensive exams for my PhD in psychology, I had one, not two oral exams. I did an exam in Psychology and I did one in statistics. Each exam consisted of two parts: written and the oral defense of what you wrote.
When I went into my statistics exam I was exhausted and scared but I thought I was composed. I tried to answer their questions but after a while found that words eluded me. I asked if I could go to the chalkboard to write the formulas for what I was trying to explain. With my heightened senses, I saw the professors, as one, draw an anxious breath. No cues in the room illuminated me as to what was going on. The question hung in the air for what felt like years until nods from the professors indicated that I could rise from my seat, grasp chalk with my sweaty hands and try to write formulas filled with Greek letters so that I could understand what I was trying to tell them.
I don’t remember how the questioning went from that point but I do remember that I passed (both in statistics and psychology). When I spoke with my professor years after the event he indicated the reason they all looked frantic when I asked to go to the board was because I was so nervous they thought I would faint if I stood up. Ah, how illuminating. I thought I was doing just fine.
Which brings me to lamps. I thought I was doing just fine with purchasing things to furnish our new home so that it did not feel like an empty cavern when we moved in. My shopping lists are carefully composed based on each room’s budget, function and decor. My shopping methodical, each purchase cataloged electronically followed by the creation of a printout of the item which was placed in one of my great three ring binders organized by product type. Everything is just fine, except lamps.
My lamp intentions were good. I prowled the internet, shopping lists in hand, looking for unique and well priced lamps. It was my theory that the illumination in a room set the tone. If the furniture was sparse but the lamp is gorgeous, it is the sun and all of the room revolves.
So far so good from an theoretical perspective. All alone I bought too many lamps. Like statistics, I like lamps. Things got worse when several companies customer service agents kindly shipped a second order of the lamps as a “courtesy” to make up for the goofs in the original order. Each pair of lamps became two pairs of lamps. Our lamps have multiplied like bunnies left unattended.
Having all those lamps might be rather enlightening but mostly right now I am confused by what is in which box and what lamps we actually have. A while back I had a nightmare of opening all the boxes of building supplies in the warehouse and finding lamps springing out of them, multiplying and covering the lawn of our new house. It was my own personal version of the Saucerer’s Apprentice.
So why statistics and lamps? While studying statistics in graduate school I was taught this Andrew Lang (1844-1912) quote: He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.
As we are building this new life in Montana, one that emerged from the ashes of rebuilding our life in Idaho, I often think of enlightenment. I wonder to myself what enlightenment can I gather during this time of unexpected and sometimes grueling change. I think of those days in graduate school when I was undergoing the grueling process of constant examination. I don’t feel like the fire was a test to be passed but do think about the similarities of how hard it is to learn complex information and convey it. Like my statistics exams, in this unknowable time of recovering from a fire, no matter how hard I study, no matter how hard I grasp the chalk, I will still not know the answer. Like statistics, I am faced the choice of using what I am learning for support or for illumination.
My lamps have taught me that illumination is the only choice I have. We cannot prop ourselves up on the trauma of the fire as if it would somehow give us support. When we are finally in our new home with the boxes unpacked I will know how many lamps I do have. When I look at them I will be reminded that our life’s experiences are best used, not to prop us up but to illuminate our path.