by Father Mark Goldasich
At times, I like to pretend this is the motto for my life. I enjoy the comfortable, the tried-and-true and the “good old days.”
Recently, I was reading an entry in the late Father Ed Hays’ “The Old Hermit’s Almanac: Daily Meditations for the Journey of Life.” Although published around 25 years ago, it remains one of my favorites. Father Hays always had a nose for the quirky and the arcane, and this book is filled with those tidbits.
In browsing the November items, I was amused by the one for the 18th, which Father Hays dubbed “Forbidden Math Day, 1300 A.D.” Sometimes, the things we take most for granted have a colorful history. Take numbers, for example. Did you have any idea that the Arabic numbers that we use today were first rejected in European commerce? This particular method of numbering was adopted by Arab scholars around the year 800 and brought to Spain a hundred years later.
As Father Hays tells it, the system spread very gradually throughout Europe, courtesy of the merchants and scholars who attended the universities in Spain. Incredibly, though, it would take some 600 years before these “foreign” numbers would be completely accepted throughout Europe, in the early 1800s. Some reasons for this ranged from a suspicion because this was a “Muslim” invention to a reluctance to embrace anything new.
In other words, people didn’t want to surrender their Roman numerals, which businessmen claimed (rightly so) were harder to forge than the Arabic ones. Father Hays breathes a sigh of relief that Arabic numbers won out. Can you imagine, he says, trying to decipher the number of atoms in a pound of iron if rendered in Roman numerals, nearly five trillion trillion or 4,891,500 followed by 18 zeros! (By the way, we can thank the Hindus for a detailed understanding of the zero.)
But “no changing” was not limited to ancient times. Ed Roswell tells about the Bayer Corporation that finally stopped putting cotton wads in its aspirin bottles in 1999, a practice it had done since 1914. The aspirin held up fine without it. Chris Allen, Bayer’s vice president of technical operations at the time, said, “We concluded there really wasn’t any reason to keep the cotton except tradition. Besides, it’s hard to get out.” (Found in 1001 Illustrations that Connect, edited by Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof.)
So, would I have been one of those people zealously holding onto those Roman numerals in the face of the upstart Arabic ones? Or insisting that cotton continue to be placed in aspirin bottles? Not on your life. And that’s why my supposed “no changing” motto really doesn’t hold up in my life.
I wouldn’t for a moment trade typing this article on a word processor for banging it out on a manual one. And I wouldn’t surrender my cellphone for one firmly tethered to a wall. And who would want to trade the GPS in our vehicles for cumbersome paper maps?
Obviously, not everything new is wonderful and not everything old needs to be jettisoned. It’s the grace of wisdom that helps us to know the difference. With the holiday season approaching, now is the time to evaluate your family’s “traditions.” Which ones are meaningful and joyful and which ones may need to be tweaked if they’ve become overbearing and stressful?
I’ll end this on this cautionary note that change, without wisdom, can be deceiving:
A man once found a lamp on the seashore. When he rubbed it, out popped a genie who granted his wish: to have the Midas touch. Now, everything the poor guy touches changes into a muffler!