Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Loyal Opposable

Appreciating Opposition
It is a sad commonplace that we do not appreciate things until they are gone. Or at least temporarily out of commission.

Health, for instance, is a blessing we routinely take for granted until illness or injury comes along to shatter our illusion that we shall always be well (and live forever).

As primates we are endowed with an opposable thumb, something that allows us to grasp and manipulate things in ways impossible for most animals. This allows the development and increasingly sophisticated use of tools. And. So. Much. More.

Life Without Opposition [or “how I found my options restricted”]
Last Thursday I slipped while descending the stairs. No bones were broken and my back and bottom were jarred but fine. My left hand, however, had made a rather sharp contact with the stairs and my thumb hurt. It still worked, so I trusted nothing serious was amiss and resigned myself to a few days of soreness.

By nightfall the soreness made its presence well known but I minimized motion and did not worry about it. While watching television (it had to be either CSI or Law & Order), I noticed the base of my thumb was not only swollen but a roseate shade indicating some serious inflammation. I moved the thumb and noted it robust sensory feedback. Not good.

Early Friday morning I called the office of my primary care physician (thank you, Dr. Bob, for connecting me with him) and made an appointment for a couple hours later. He examined my hand, probed and wiggled my thumb, and proposed a cautious course.

Next stops: the nearest hospital for x-rays and a medical supply store for a brace to restrict thumb motion. And on Monday, a visit to an orthopedic clinic.

A severe curtailing of motion brings one up short. Grasping, applying pressure and torque, fine manipulation—bid these farewell. Over the weekend I discovered how many simple tasks were now awkward, difficult, or downright impossible. These are temporary conveniences, however.

What scared me, quite frankly, was the remote possibility of long-term limitations of thumb motion. This was my left hand: the one I eat and write and draw and paint with. (And shave with, as I was reminded today.) As an amateur artist and someone who wants to go into his later years with greater creative expressions, that is a major threat. This is why I was more than happy to jump through medical hoops and spend time in waiting rooms.

The orthopedic nurse practitioner reassured me that no bones were broken (I had looked at the x-rays myself while I had them over the weekend and was already as sure as the medically untrained could be that this was the case) and the ligament in question was not torn. [Google helped me verify that we are talking here about the ulnar collateral ligament, the one involved in “Gamekeeper’s (or skier’s) thumb,” http://www.handuniversity.com/topics.asp?Topic_ID=29 the danger my primary physician had named. I could hardly take notes during the examination while my writing hand was being manipulated.]

The downside, from the standpoint of daily activity, is that the brace was replaced with a cast to really immobilize my thumb while the injured ligament heals. I could remove the brace for meals and wet activities such as washing hands or dishes and showering. Not so the cast. It is with me night and day, no exceptions. It also restricts the motion of my fingers as I type, an uncomfortable but not insuperable matter. The brace allowed me to grasp things loosely; the cast makes all but the grosses and most awkward grasping with the left hand impossible.

The Scene of the “Crime” and The Result

You will note that, in our world of fashion options, I could choose a black cast. Well, I can hardly carry off Prussian blue or coral pink and I know that black with white trim suits my coloring well.

For any readers who have been spared the experience, consider simple matters of hygiene and attempting to accomplish them with one hand. Shaving with one’s non-dominant hand? (I only cut myself twice; not bad.) Pulling on socks. Buttoning! Buttons are such a wonderful device and fiendishly difficult without full flexibility. I also have a new limitation in wardrobe. Anything that does not fit with reasonable ease over a forearm in a cast is out of the question. And the pulling on and off can be fun even then.

Well, patient reader, you are by now asking, “What is his point?” It is this:

We need opposition to function well. Without it we are awkward, flabby, weak. Our entire musculature is based on the calibration of opposing motions. The biceps brachii flexes our arm and the triceps brachii then re-extends it. [And yes, my friends, biceps and triceps are both singular, not plural, words from Latin. Let us hear no nonsense about a “bicep”—ugh!]

When I was learning about the Four Directions from Peter Brokenleg a few years back, he spoke of the North as the direction of the North Wind that blows furiously, cleansing and strengthening us. Just as we lean into the wind, so we exert ourselves against various opposing forces. In doing so we gain strength. That is the whole point of weight training, using resistance to build our strength. The harsh wind also blows away the no longer needful, cleansing us for the next cycle of the year.

Opposition to our ideas also forces us to look at what we think, to see it from other perspectives, to analyze it more closely and carefully, to defend it, to refine it, to articulate it more clearly and with better nuance. Opposition is a refining and strengthening force.

This is being tested in the life of the Anglican Communion right now. Large bodies of people who wish to follow Christ disagree over what matters and what does not in faithful following. Their assumptions and perspectives vary widely, making it difficult if not impossible to come to agreement on how they should live out and proclaim Good News in their concrete historical situations. There is a very real question of whether the Anglican Communion will survive without major rupture.

Frankly, I do not think it will, nor can I find it within me to even pray that it will. While the benefits of honest dialogue with disagreement can force us all to question our assumptions and test our knowledge and motives, I see coercion toward conformity to be something beyond parties of “loyal opposition.” My wording exposes my bias. I see what has emerged from the Primates’ Meeting in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania, to be a simple ultimatum. The Episcopal Church in the USA must conform to the majority view within this calendar year or there will be hell to pay.

In other words, while both sides are self-admitted imperfect, sinful groups, one side has been declared “right” and the other “wrong.” I write from the “wrong” side, having already been excommunicated by several African provinces.

I have long believed we need tension, that it is built into the universe and, if one believes in some “higher power” that it is an intentional part of the design of reality. I do not think it is necessary or desirable that one side of a polarity prevail. Most of us live most of our lives somewhere in the middle of tensions. I know I operate much better with both left and right hands, though my left is dominant.

[And a quick shout out to all the wonderful, brave men and women who have been injured in military service, to victims of conflict or accident, and to all who have to struggle with one hand, or one leg, or one eye, or none. Our wholeness as human beings is not based on our inventory of parts.]

So, I would have urged the Primates, had I the opportunity, to acknowledge that they see the Holy Spirit’s actions from differing perspectives and that though this may be painful it cannot be resolved at this time without violation of conscience on one side or the other. Since the violation of conscience, we should all be able to agree, is not of God, it cannot be our way forward. We must live in tension. It will make us all stronger and healthier in the long run and may well blow out some extraneous matter.

Let the Holy Spirit and the North Wind blow, my friends.

But do not submit your conscience to another.

—the BB