Common Denominator

I’ve been thinking a lot about math lately. Oh, oh!

When I was a kid, I loved math. In Elementary School it was always my favorite subject. In part, because I was good at it. My family played a lot of cards which meant that I was often adding cards and numbers. A bunch of cribbage and friendly poker. In Junior High School I loved my math teacher, Mr. Mercer. He was the teacher that everyone thought was hard. Or weird. Again, I thrived to move beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division into more involved algebra and geometry. Fun again. It was High School and University calculus that killed me. Math became not so much fun, but that’s when my life and life circumstances had me searching for more of an interior quality — psychology became my thing.

Remember the concept of “common denominator?” It’s a particularly important concept when adding fractions. The denominator is the number below the line in a fraction. It’s the number that identifies how many total parts there are. In “1/4” the four is the denominator, signaling that that whole is divided into four equal parts.

When adding fractions, an intermediary step is needed if the denominators don’t match. That step is to find a common denominator, and as I was taught, the lowest common denominator. “1/4” + “3/8” is an example. The lowest common denominator here is “8.” So to add the two with different denominators requires converting “1/4” into an expression of “eighths.” Multiply the denominator by 2 and then the numerator (the number above the line in the fraction) by the same. This gives you “2/8” which is equal numerically to “1/4.”

Yup, that’s math. So…

In this simple math, I’ve been remembering that there is always a common denominator. Not sometimes. Always. It may not seem so obvious as “1/4 + 3/8.” For example, “1/3” + “8/17” is a bit more complicated, but that common denominator is still there. In this case “3 x 17,” or “51.” Thus, the intermediary step so that these two fractions can talk to each other is to convert them to an expression with a denominator of “51.”

“1/3” is “17/51.”

“8/17” is “24/51.”

Add them together and you get “32/51.”

Enough math. On to psychology and, one of the domains that psychology lead me, to hosting participatory process and leadership.

My suggestion is that there is always a way to find a common denominator in people. Even when it seems like there is not. The common denominator is found in the interaction. It’s found by bringing two or more together. Even when it seems impossible. The common denominator is no longer a number. It becomes more of an energy of together. Of going together for a purpose.

I want to believe that in our utter humanness together, there is always common denominator. There is people who care about their community. There is respect for life. There is commitment to beauty. Or love. Or joy. Or play. Or excellence. Or imagination. Or creativity. The act of coming together helps us to find that. In respectful listening. In thoughtful sharing. In asking questions. In witnessing stories. In speaking honestly. In suspending certainty. In willingness to be surprised.

I’ve been thinking a lot, and hoping a lot, about math lately, and this simple awareness of common that feels very important to pay attention to.


Summer Rain


I’ve been enjoying a book of Maori proverbs lately. It was given to me by friend and colleague, Mary Alice Arthur, when I first went to New Zealand in 2009. The particular book I have is called, Earth, Sea, Sky: Images and Maori Proverbs from the Natural World of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is by Patricia and Waiariki Grace, with photographs from Craig Potton. I love the short and simple phrases that come from Maori tradition and from this land that has claimed a good chunk of my heart.

The picture above is one that I took last year, near Wellington. I was enjoying the distant horizon and the time with my then 18 year-old son. From the book, the proverb is:

He taru kahika.

Walk on,
as it is only the summer rain falling.

It’s a reminder to be aware of small adversity, and thus not to let it be a hindrance.