‘When Overwhelmed, Break It Down’: The Motto That Applies to Advent and Arithmetic

A school-aged boy wearing a red shirtfocuses on his homework
Photo by Santi Vedrí on UnSplash

Late last night, after a full evening of celebrations for my birthday, and even fuller tummies from an amazing dinner, my two young sons were getting ready for bed. I was already lying in bed myself, waiting for them to finish their nightly routine so I could tell them goodnight and drift slowly into a much-anticipated dreamland. 

Out of the soft white noise of our home, came the distressing sound of one child having a meltdown and the other trying desperately to calm him down. I dragged my tired body into the living room where both boys were situated and asked what on earth was the matter. 

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My older son looked at the younger and said, “Go on, tell her.” Seeing the tear-stained face of my 9-year-old, I waited for him to indulge me in what was the matter. He simply looked down and refused to talk to me, no matter how much I prodded. Finally, I gave up and said I was going to bed, thinking he would buy into my poker-faced desperation tactic (bluffing) to get him to talk. No dice. 

Finally, his older brother revealed why his younger brother was so upset. It seems that on his homework, he did not understand the term “partition” and was beyond stressed by how to solve the math problem presented with instructions to use this new-fangled way of arithmetic. 

Thanks to Google, I learned that partitioning,” in math, is a way of taking a very large number and breaking it down into smaller portions, adding those portions together to produce the final sum. Well, okay…I guess that makes sense. Basically, the same process I learned several hundreds of years ago, only without the fancy new term. 

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As I explained to my young son what “partitioning” meant, I realized how very relatable his reaction was to what many of us feel at this very time of year. Overwhelmed, stressed out, not knowing where to start, weary, tired, upset, over-emotional.

In a season when the celebration boils down to a very simple birth, in a very simple setting, we sure tend to pull out all the stops to make it the most complicated time of year. Purchasing the right gifts for everyone in our families, at work, at school, plus the mailman, the grocery clerk, the neighbors. Making the favorite foods that elicit the proper mood for our holiday celebration. Attending all the festive holiday hotspots, taking our kids to see Santa, attending children’s Christmas parties and school plays, going to church on Christmas Eve. The “to-dos” seem like an endless array of tasks we absolutely must perform, like a hamster on a wheel of never-ending activity, in order to properly celebrate Christmas. 

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If you are anything at all like me, you will have at least one major breakdown in the midst of this most wonderful time of year. As I considered the math lesson I had just learned, in efforts to help my young son, I realized that “partitioning” isn’t just for math. It can be applied to life as well. 

One thing I learned (perhaps the only thing), while studying sociology in college, was that any theory, belief, or fact can easily be boiled down to a basic truth. Thus, I coined the phrase: “When overwhelmed, break it down.” 

Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. God knew, in his infinite wisdom, that we simple creatures would no doubt turn the birth of his Son into a commercialized, materialistic, bigger-is-better, chaotic fiasco every single year. He was right. We do. I do. I get so caught up in doing the myriad of festivities that I think will create that magical feeling for my children that I lose sight of the simple reason we celebrate at all.  

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I wonder if that is not why God was adamant that the King of the world be born in such lowly and basic conditions? A dirty barn. An itchy straw-filled manger. A young unwed mother and a confused, yet faithful, father. The birth of Jesus did not make sense to many at the time. It may not make sense to many today. Yet, the older I get and the more I realize how easily distractions take me away from the sole purpose of Christmas, the more I realize that God wanted it simple so that we as a human race would understand. 

His son. Born as a human, living a life of all-encompassing emotions, hurts, joys, desires, and abilities, unfairly condemned to die for a crime in which he did not commit. But rather he allowed the punishment of his only son to replace that which we, as his adopted children, righteously deserve. 

Partition. Breaking it down. The sum of all these detailed and carefully constructed parts equals the sum of an overwhelming love. A desire to save us from ourselves and invite us to live in relationship with him. 

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My son had a breakdown because he did not understand his homework. What resulted was a lesson holding much magnitude for me — a reminder to take that overwhelming feeling of Christmastime and break it down to the pure, simple reason for the season. 

This season, we celebrate Jesus’ birth. One future day, we will stand with him in eternal glory and realize that “the most wonderful time of year” was really more simple than we ever allowed it to be. If we properly partition now, we will delight in the joys of this season and every season after.

Originally published on December 20, 2021.