I must have been daydreaming while chopping vegetables in the kitchen, because suddenly there was a wound on the top of my right thumb, next to the nail – a small but deep wound, which I promptly treated in the usual way. Disinfect, slap on plaster, add fingerstall and that’s that, back to normal.
Except it wasn’t. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t carry out even the simplest task without involving my thumb, which reacted with sharp pain to the gentlest touch. Well now, I said to my elegantly wrapped digit, I didn’t know you were so important. Although, come to think of it – beside apes and monkeys only we humans have thumbs which we can put across our palms, only we can grab, hold and release things and carry out countless jobs from chopping parsnips to the most sophisticated craftsmanship. Without thumbs there would be no writing and therefore no reading, we wouldn’t be able to use tools, paint, sculpt, sow, play an instrument, light a fire, cook – in brief, there would be no civilization.
That in itself was food for thought. But more importantly, how was I going to manage with my left hand, to spare its disabled twin? Not well was the short answer. My left hand was amazingly clumsy and inept, in keeping with its lifelong role of being second-rate and neglected. But that in itself provided an interesting challenge. What if I tried to train and educate it and teach it to do everything that my right hand with its sore thumb couldn’t carry out? Since our hands and brain hemispheres are connected diagonally, by promoting my left hand I would also develop my right hemisphere, the home of emotions, imagination, intuition and creativity. Great, I thought (with my left brain), buy one, get one free.
Soon enough I discovered some useful methods to improve the situation. For instance, to draw with my left hand simple shapes – circles, triangles, squares – then write down the alphabet, both in capitals and in small letters. Another way was to wear my watch on my right wrist for a fortnight, to get used to the change of direction. Further methods included throwing and catching a tennis ball and using a tin opener and a corkscrew, all with my left hand.
I started immediately. The results were catastrophic. My attempts to draw and write with my left hand looked like the hopeless efforts of a mentally deficient monkey; compared to the ease and speed of my normal writing this was truly humiliating. I moved my watch to my right wrist but invariably looked at the left one when I wanted to check the time. As for opening a tin, I didn’t even risk it, after trying to peel an apple with my left hand; the apple almost won.
Clearly, this wasn’t working, so I fled from useless practice to interesting research, and discovered that almost 8O% of humankind is right-handed, the rest is left-handed, except for a tiny ambidextrous minority. The right hand has always been superior: on the skeletons of our most remote ancestors the right arms and shoulders were always stronger than the left, so they must have used that side to throw stones and fight. Even our language confirms this hierarchy: think of a human right, assure me that it’s all right, and avoid the left-hand path, which would topple you into black magic. The same double meaning attaches to the German Recht and the French Droit, while the Latin word sinister, meaning “left”, has slipped seamlessly into English, suggesting all kinds of nasty qualities.
Things were even worse in Arab countries, where the left hand was regarded as unclean and was not be used for eating. In Ghana, I discovered, one wasn’t even supposed to gesticulate with one’s left hand; and so on, and so forth. The left hand had no rights, I concluded with growing sympathy for my own: on top of not being able to draw, write or catch tennis balls, it also had to put up with international insults.
The only comfort came from some recent research which claimed that the number of left-handed people was growing exponentially, and that many of them were outstandingly gifted successful individuals. Ah, perhaps Nature is redressing the balance, I thought, and humankind’s collective left hand will be rehabilitated. The longer I collected these slightly eccentric data, the more they absorbed me, until one day, forgetting my usual caution, I grabbed a doorknob with my right hand – and my thumb didn’t hurt. It had healed itself quietly and naturally, while I was busy trying, with my fully engaged left brain, to find a temporary substitute for it.
What a lesson to learn…