The calculus of feeling

The integral part of the nerve flux is pain
when the curve stays mute no more,
and when it’s summed up for all that you’re out—
pay later, pay now, but pay—
it’s not supposed to matter, except that it does,
because now it’s not the instant, it’s the whole.

This is the way that the curve wends its way
through the range of emotions it finds,
and if it’s hard at the end it wasn’t at the start
when the twisting had just begun.
I recall at the time that the values were mine
and there was something to be said for that,
but that was then and this is now, and tomorrow,
it will all fall down upon me again.

One of the things that most struck me in trying to understand addiction is the mathematical nature of its roller coaster emotional curve.

What follows is a very readable and understandable short description of a mathematical subject. Even people who “don’t get math” will get this. You’ve been warned.

Calculus is a branch of mathematics co-developed in the mid 1600s by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. If you take a graph of the changing speed of an object, differentiating it at a point means finding out exactly what is happening at that instance: that is, either your acceleration, that “push you back into the seat” feeling, or your deceleration, the “push you against the safety belt straps” feeling that you get when an automobile starts off quickly or stops quickly. If, however, you integrate the graph, you are trying to determine how much area is underneath its shape; in the notion of speed, integrating it gives you the total distance that you have traveled.

It is as simple as that: the math of calculus and its two halves—differentiation and integration—tell you exactly what is happening in the part or in the whole.

What struck me, and was the impetus to this poem, was the parallel between these very physical activities and the emotions of addiction. If you think of a plot of a person’s emotional state over time, you can think of differentiating at any one spot as the degree of happiness (like acceleration) or suffering (like deceleration) experienced by that person at that moment; and integrating that emotional arc over some time period—that is, determining the area “under the emotional curve”—will tell you the amount of joy, if there was more happiness than suffering, or the amount of pain, if there had more suffering than happiness. An addict’s curve is assuredly negative and will have been that way for a long time.

A “flux” by the way, is a wave that moves through something. A current of electricity is a flux of energy moving through a wire. The “nerve flux” is the amount of emotional pain that can no longer be dulled or quieted through addiction. I was drawn to use it as “flux” was the word that Leibniz used when he first described his version of calculus.

Thank you for reading The calculus of emotion. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge,


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