Wounds and blessings

My father was missing the tips of three of his fingers on his right hand. The loss was the result of two different accidents with the planner on his Shopsmith woodworking tool. I witnessed the second accident, thought I was hardly aware that anything had occurred. He calmly powered down the tool, wrapped his hand in a towel and walked out the back door of our house and across the alley to the emergency room of the hospital. We were working on a science fair project making sample pieces of all of the kinds of woods that were being used in our family’s kitchen remodeling project. I later mounted the pieces of wood on a piece of poster board and carefully labeled each one.

The three fingers were shortened to the location of the final joint in the finger. They had no fingernails and after they healed the ends were smooth with a flap of skin pulled over the tips that neatly healed into the rest of the finger. You barely noticed the difference. It didn’t seem to limit his ability to do the things he enjoyed. He continued to work and use tools effectively. He shook hands with his customers without embarrassment of causing them discomfort. He could pick up us children and enjoy his grandchildren.

Later, when I had become an adult, he would sometimes report about the challenges of nerve endings that had been lost and others that had been relocated from the sides of this fingers to his tips. His most common symptom is a condition called hypoesthesia. His fingers didn't feel things that they should feel. This was especially true of extremes of temperature. He had to be especially careful when working outdoors in the winter because he could get frostbite in those fingers without knowing that they were cold. They were relatively good at sensing touch, especially if he pushed a bit harder than his other fingers required, but he couldn’t gauge temperature with those fingers. Most of this time it wan’t a problem because he could use his other fingers to determine temperature. He wasn’t likely to burn those fingers because they probably wouldn’t be put into contact with hot objects since he could feel heat with his remaining fingers. However they were the fingers most distant from his thumb and forefinger with which he did fine motor tasks and because he used them less than the other fingers, they would become more cold from working outdoors and sometimes he didn’t notice.

Earlier in his injury he had also experienced dysaesthesia - the experience of pain when there is no source for the pain. He would have the sensation that the tips of his fingers were still present and they might itch or hurt without any reason for either sensation. That seemed to fade with the passage of time as his brain and nerves relearned the shape of his body and the condition of his hands.

Yesterday when participating in a small group at the church, the though of my father and his hands came to mind briefly. Another person was speaking of grief that comes with the loss of something other than the death of a loved one. I never spoke to my father about whether or not he experienced grief with the loss of the tips of his fingers. I know that those who lose limbs experience grief over their loss, but perhaps it is a matter of degree - the larger the loss the more acutely the pain of grief is felt.

As a writer, I often think about words and how we use them to describe our human experience. As a theologian and a student of the bible, I often reflect on the challenges of translation from one language to another and the possibility of miscommunication of important concepts when translation takes place. The poet Gregory Orr points out that while in English “to bless” is to confer divine benevolence on someone or something, in French the verb “blesser” means to wound. The two are linked, he suggests, beyond logic.

When I think of the process of grief, however, I might take issue with Orr’s conclusion that the link is “beyond logic.” It seems to me that the connection might be more logical than it first appears. In order to receive God’s benevolence, God first needs to get under our skin. We have to allow God to become a part of our lives before we can know God’s goodness. Sometimes it is at the point of injury where we allow God to become a part of who we are.

My former teacher Granger Westberg always referred to grief as a good process. Even though it involves pain, grieving connects us to other people and to God in ways where we previously were separated. Sometimes we have to go through the experience of pain in order to discover the blessing that is present.

Two gestures, which have become habits for me, provide a constant reminder of how blessed I am. The first is the practice of touching each finger of my hand to my thumb. I start with my pinkie and proceed to my ring finger, middle finger and pointer, each in turn. The sensation in the tips of those first three fingers reminds me that i am able to feel something that my father could not feel after his accident. I am blessed to have finger tips with all of their sensations and abilities on all five of my fingers on each hand.

The second gesture, similar to the first in meaning, is placing the tips of each finger to the tip of the corresponding finger on the other hand. I frequently hold my hands in that position when I am listening carefully. Often I am unaware of the gesture until something makes me look at my hands or I allow my mind to wander from the intensity of careful listening. Somehow this brief reminder of my wholeness helps me to be wholly present to another person.

Perhaps our wounds are also blessings when we allow our vulnerability to show and face the world as real human beings, flaws and all.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!