Or, Why I Like Calculus
The speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 300,000,000 meters per second, meaning that photons from the surface of the Sun take roughly eight minutes to reach planet Earth. That’s a long time or a short time depending on one’s understanding of distances between celestial bodies, but it matters that it’s eight minutes and not seven. Nothing can hurry the sunlight; it’s going as fast as it can, and, still, it takes eight minutes.
There’s an epic moment in the movie Without Limits, the 1998 biopic of great American runner Steve Prefontaine. Bill Bowerman, Pre’s coach, shouts at him, “Be thankful for your limits, Pre. They’re about as limitless as they get in this life.” Pursuit of greatness can quickly turn into obsession: Pre once held the American record at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000m on the outdoor track, and still he wanted more. There’s something so tantalizing about a record. It taunts a man to go just a little bit faster, to push just a little bit harder.
In 1954, Roger Bannister recorded the first sub-four-minute mile. As of this writing, the current men’s record is 3:43.13 by retired Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj. Most experts would agree that a sub-three-minute mile is beyond human capability, but what about 3:42? Or 3:41? Following Bannister’s achievement, the world record dropped every few years, but El Guerrouj’s mark has stood since 1999. Perhaps sociocultural factors have lessened the global interest in distance running, perhaps elite athletes no longer carry that singular focus, or perhaps the world has already seen the fastest a human being will ever run 5,280 feet. Another decade will provide a hint; another century may tell for sure. It makes for an exhilarating thought experiment: Is mankind still reaching its greatest potential, or has the moment already passed?
Considering this question, it makes sense why I liked calculus in school. The mathematical study of limits, the convergence of graphs and patterns toward a single asymptote they will never cross—I saw my life in numbers. One of my middle school teachers told the class, “Boys, when your wife asks what’s the happiest day of your life, the correct answer is the day of your wedding. Maybe until your first child is born, then you can say that.” Not a lot to hope for once the kids are out of the house, is there? Maybe joy approaches a limit until a man’s wedding day but has a line it never crosses. Maybe my athletic prowess peaked in college, or maybe I’ll work out more in my fifties. Maybe my health has already reached its upper limit; hopefully my finances are a long way off.
This kind of talk depresses most readers, and it probably should. There’s a natural limitation to human effort: We are born invincible and gradually learn the truth. The child’s hand on the stove, the teen’s first broken heart, bad news at the doctor’s, a pink slip at the job. Paul writes of the thorn in his flesh, the one to which the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). So there is grace in limitation; God’s power goes beyond the asymptote.
I try to imagine a shape with no boundaries, and suddenly I’m thankful for my limits. I, too, have definition; I too am named. Light takes eight minutes to arrive here from the sun, and it’s well worth the journey. True power comes when I approach my limits.
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