When I was a little boy I learned numbers long before I could identify letters. I went around “reading” numbers and speaking them aloud wherever I saw them, probably driving my parents to distraction, though they didn’t let on. Counting was the closest thing I had to a superpower.
Numbers also represented a connection to the wider world and access to something grand out there that preexisted me. Of course, I had no concrete grasp of that at the time. I just liked numbers.
One day I parked myself at the kitchen table and stayed there until I counted to one thousand, after which my patient mother rewarded me with a “Wowww! Very good, Jerry.” In my memory it was a monumental achievement that took all day, though I now know it couldn’t have taken longer than 30 minutes.
Another memorable experience with a number has yielded benefits to this very day. I was sitting alone on my bed with a large book, a dictionary I believe, reading the page numbers and searching for the hidden numbers within the scribble-scrabble definitions. I came to page 444.
I said aloud to myself, “I’m four years old and this is my number: 444.” And so it was. 444 was my number for life. Sure enough, since that day I’ve been inclined to speak aloud to myself the number 444 at random times. A year or longer may pass without my thinking of it and then, while standing on line at the bank or eating dinner with friends, up through the jumble of thought will rise, clear and bright, the number 444. Then in respectful solidarity with my younger self, I give soft utterance to my number: 444. My old friend 444 is fearless; it even came to my mind unbidden at the altar on my wedding day.
I never force myself to remember the number, never schedule an utterance, and I never fret that it will go away for good. Like the wind and the Holy Spirit, 444 comes and goes on its own mysterious timetable. The moment it appears and I acknowledge its presence is a pure moment for me, strangely stabilizing and free from anxiety. I always smile inwardly.
The mystery of 444 has not stopped me from attempting to assess its psychological or even spiritual significance. I easily reject the “primeval self” hypothesis, that this is a vestige of superstition. My relationship with the number has nothing in common with obsessive-compulsive behavior. I jokingly call 444 a superpower, but I do not call it a “higher power.” I never pursue it and it never has a necessary connection with agitation. 444 is a delightful curiosity that suggests to me how important is a sense of continuity in life.
The realization and the feeling that I am the same person as that little boy sitting on the edge of a bed with a dictionary imparts a welcome self-respect and compassion for myself; outlooks that I intuit are integral to my experience of a meaningful life.
Both sides of my family have researched our ancestral origins. Feeling connected to my dad’s grandmother, who ran a farm in Poland in the 19th century, or sympathizing with the legal travails of a rascally great-grandfather in Italy stirs my soul in a way that’s hard to define. I like being connected to them. What decisions did they make that affect my life today? What decisions am I making today that will affect the lives of others 100 years from now? I like being connected to them too. This is somewhat mind-blowing and pleasing to ponder.
I might extend this train of thought to wider society. The study of Western Civilization represents continuity with our cultural past, our intellectual and spiritual development as a race, and our connection with our younger selves as a civilization. You could say reading and rereading Plato’s Republic or Genesis or King Lear is a 444 of sorts for our culture; touchstones of continuous development, memory and meaning; each reader a present link between the past and the future.
I work at St. John’s College and one of its founders, the strangely named Stringfellow Barr, was a strong advocate of admitting talented students to the College before they graduated high school. He said, “The only thing you learn in the last two years of high school is how to dance!” This is not earth-shattering information, but I like that statement. It helps me feel closer to Stringfellow Barr. In its small way this brings greater meaning to my labor at the College.
Speaking out the seemingly trivial “444” whenever it calls to me allows me to feel closer to the boy I was. This makes it easier to accept myself as I am now, since that boy and I are one and the same human being. It is so odd and wonderful to me that life is like that; that a small, obscure moment over fifty years ago can transcend my hardships and find lasting purchase in my soul.