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Meditation 389: On Being Thankful to Have Been Born Left Handed

by Wilfred C. Lyon

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I have been reminded recently that I am left-handed.  I fell and involuntarily extended my dominant hand to break the fall.  In doing so, I broke my left wrist.  My life is now, hopefully only temporarily, complicated by the limited use of my dominant hand.

My family knew that I was left-handed when I was about three months old.  I was born with a “good” appetite and could not be fed fast enough.  I demanded to be fed solid food at that early age.  I chased Cherrios with my left hand and in a few weeks would take the spoon to feed myself faster.  I always put the spoon in my left hand. 

This was before my first speech.  In speech, I was a late bloomer.  Somehow the things that we do or sense is not retained in our memory from before we learn to speak, unless it was traumatic.  I learned of my left-handedness and the above stories later in life, they were not traumatic.  Somehow my parents decided to let me be left hand dominant.  My maternal grandfather was the left hand version of “mirror” twins.  In mirror twins, the zygote (or possibly blastula) splits after several cell divisions but before implantation in the womb.  The, now, two zygotes develop separately as twins, but as mirror images of each other, so one is right-handed and the other is left-handed.  If, as is “normal twins”, the zygote splits with the first cell division, both implant and develop as identical twins and both are same handed.  My grandfather was raised right-handed, but never fully adapted his brain to this regimen.  Throughout his life he continued to do some things left-handed, some things ambidextrously, and some things right-handed.  In several things he was decidedly inept.  I thought that this was the reason for me not to have been “converted” was the word used.  I thought that my grandfather had been converted so that he might better fit into a decidedly right-handed world.

I had inklings that there was another reason.  When I started school, there was a discussion whether I should be “converted”.  But the simple answer then was that I had pestered my mother to teach me to read and write like my older brother.  She had and I entered kindergarten with a quite advanced ability to read, and, well, write, but not very well.  But why unlearn or relearn?  I did not know then that my mother stood up for me in my natural state and had quite vigorously state no to “conversion”.  I had inklings from a traveling missionary.  These missionaries would come home from the field on R & R every few years and would help pay their way back by being a sort of vaudeville show in the churches.  They would tell of their experiences and their part in the “Whiteman’s Burden”, Then they would get a special collection taken up and go to the next church in the circuit.  One of those, whose mission was the Arabic World, regaled us with stories of the barbaric culture.  Much later in life, I learned that these barbarians had kept what culture there was alive and brought it back to the “Whiteman” at the end of the Dark Ages.  One of the barbaric practices was eating only with the right hand.  Eating with the left hand was taboo and was punished, in the extreme but cutting off the left hand.  These barbarians converted every left-hander to a right-hander.

It was in college that the story became clear.  It was in a Modern French Literature course which started with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs de Mal.  In Les Fleurs de Mal, we came upon the word “sinastrement”.  We all interpreted it as its cognate, sinisterly, or evilly.  Our wise professor pointed out that this meant “lefthandedly”, and in Baudelaire’s time they were used interchangeably with evil.  In the discussion it became clear that from Roman times, the words were interchangeable, left-handed and evil, a person who was left handed was considered evil.  Even Shakespeare made references to one of his villains (Shylock and/or the Moor in the Merchant of Venice) as doing something left-handed.  The Catholic French merely adopted the practice along with the language as had Shakespeare.  Left-handed was evil.  Parents converted their children or faced having them branded as witches, evil persons, or the devil.

I don’t know when the evil practice disappeared, or exactly why, but apparently in my own time.  I am thankful that this evil superstition is gone.  At least with whatever causes the congenital condition occurs early enough to have spared the child death.  I have a friend whose son is schizophrenic.  This, too, is a congenital condition.  Jim’s symptoms did not appear until he was almost 16 years old.  By the time he was 20, he was “full blown”; voices, paranoia, violence, in spite of the then best treatment and medicines.  I am sure if Bill could have “converted” Jim from this, he would have done so.  In years past this was considered a form of devil possession, a moral falling of the child, parent, grandparent (even to the fourth generation as the Bible says).  The cure was to beat the devil out of them.  The “hospital” at Bedlam was such an institution.  Again, I do not know when the practice disappeared, nor exactly why.  In the case of schizophrenia, I am quite sure that there was some science that helped put the practice away.  Without science and some grounding what is statistically effective, the church might still be bludgeoning people to either death or to the point of hiding and hiding the symptoms.

Left-handedness occurs in about one-in-nine in Caucasian populations.  Schizophrenia is somewhat more complicated because there seem to be degrees of schizophrenia.  Bill told me that about one-in-fourteen is affected when all of its milder forms are considered.  I wonder what other congenital things is our society persecuting, the predilection for alcoholism/drugs: about one-in-ten, homosexuality: about one-in-ten, sexual deviancy: I don’t know the numbers.  These are considered moral problems by the churched and need to be “converted” out of the carriers.  Some of these do, indeed, have moral consequences.  But I wonder two things.  One is how much is just different.  Left-handed is not a moral outrage now.  We can learn to live with it, even I can live fairly well in a right-handed world.  Former cultures and some current ones accommodate homosexuality much like my being left-handed.  Quite frankly, I don’t see where our culture couldn’t do this too.  Secondly, of those others that have moral consequences; alcoholism/drug addiction, schizophrenia, sexual deviancy, nothing is to be gained by treating these as simply moral problems to be converted out of those who have the congenital condition.  No scientific cure, no drug, no therapy, no genetic correction will come of this approach.  The sad part is that the longer the current moral problem approach is maintained, the less there will be money for research, development, and change for the better.

I would like to make George W. Bush the poster child for this approach.  He has congenital defect that has given him alcohol and drug problems.  He is using the “converted” approach.  Yet he lies continually, he has temper tantrums that has set off two wars and threatened more, he seems to have delusions of grandeur and has surrounded himself with a group of sycophants that will support his delusion.  If there can be a worse yet, he has made this “conversion” to be the cornerstone of his agenda, Just Say No to Drugs, Just Say No to Sex, Homos Just Give Up Your Lifestyle, a zygote is a fully developed human, any lump of human protoplasm even without sentience is a human being.  He backs Faith Based Initiatives without our consent with our money.  He is breaking our Constitution with his sycophants in power with the Patriot Act and without by using Presidential Initiatives.  George W. Bush is just a “white knuckled dry drunk” and his “conversion” has left him with all of the moral problems he had before, he has just found a better way to hide his symptoms.

A “convert” is still the same as they were before filled with the same congenital make-up.  My brain developed on the right side.  We need to decide how to deal with differences; Which can we live with, for which ones do we need to make accommodations, which do we need to help, and then work toward providing the best most scientific help available.