Taylor: The power of misleading metaphors

Presumably Humpty didn’t have an orthopedic surgeon available. I did and he put my elbow back together.

My recent fall off a wall shattered more than my elbow.

You remember the nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Presumably Humpty didn’t have an orthopedic surgeon available. I did and he put my elbow back together. But re-assembly is not the same as recovery. Most of the day, I carry my injured arm in a sling.

On the one hand, the sling protects my damaged bones and ligaments. It prevents me from attempting too much, causing further damage.

On the other hand, well, there is no other hand.

Anything I used to do with two hands—from tying shoelaces to unscrewing the cap of the toothpaste tube—I now have to do with one hand. Or do without. Some things, like buttons, my wife Joan can do for me. Other things, I have to learn to do differently.

Take one trivial example. I was never conscious before of what I did, in what order, when taking my pills at night. Now I’m forced into an inflexible sequence. I have to turn on the tap before I can fill the glass with water; I have to pop the pills in my mouth before I sip from that glass.

It’s humiliating to realize how much I used to take for granted.

Everything takes twice as long to do. And takes twice as much energy. Does that make it four times as difficult? I’m too tired to figure it out. I need a rest…

I used to feel impatient with people who took longer than I did. Now I’m the one who takes longer.

For me, this is a short-term disability. Others will never “get over” their disability.

I’m beginning to realize that many of my figures of speech—such as “on the one hand, on the other hand”—come from an able-bodied perspective. It’s like saying to a blind person, “Do you see what I mean?” Or telling a paraplegic to “put his best foot forward.”

This realization causes not quite as much shock as my discovery, some 30 years ago, of the way my language took maleness for granted. Spokesman, chairman, man-hours—such words tilted the playing field against women’s participation.

I wasn’t alone, of course.

Psychologists such as Jung, Piaget and Kohlberg all treated boys’ developmental experiences as the norm for everyone. Until, as my late friend Doug Hodgkinson used to say, “Carol Gilligan blew them out of the water” with her book about the growing experience of the other half of humanity, In a Different Voice.

No doubt the same shock came to anti-slavery abolitionists when they realized how prevailing religious metaphors of sin as dark, black, without light—in contrast to portraying goodness and purity as white, bright, shining—reinforced the perception of African slaves as less than human.

The words we use shape the way we think.

I hope I can remember all this when I have two useful hands again.