I Cut Off My Finger - Here’s What I Learned
In December of 2020 I cut off half of my right index finger in a woodworking accident.
As I lay in the hospital bed awaiting surgery to tie up all my loose ends, I did a lot of grieving. I felt the enormity of a non-normal life, of trying to navigate a five-fingered world with only four.
And while I held a tremendous gratitude that my accident hadn’t been worse, that I had access to quality medical care and supportive family and friends, I also felt an indescribable sense of loss.
I had lost my life as I knew it. I recognize my processing was nowhere near what those with full limb amputations or spinal cord injuries must experience. But that didn’t stop me from feeling all the feels in those interminable hours between driving myself to the hospital and the moment they wheeled me into the operating room.
The following week was one of pain, both mental and physical. Everything was hard. I hurt all the time.
My body tried to process the loss by firing constant nerve triggers which felt like pain in the finger that wasn’t there. And my mind had to constantly readjust to the fact that I’d never again push an elevator button like a normal person.
Two weeks later, I took out all 30-some stitches, snipping away the tiny black threads with wire cutters and pulling the ends through with tweezers. I remember thinking how it was kind of like unwrapping a very unwanted gift, each stitch bringing me closer to the realization that this was my reality forever.
By Week Three After the Accident, I Began Experimenting
I started typing at work instead of dictating. I started using a mouse with my right hand. I started playing music again — piano, violin and guitar — and constantly reminded myself that patience and persistence were the tools I needed most.
In the process of amputating my finger, I had also badly lacerated my right thumb, cutting at least a portion of the primary nerve.
This posed as many problems as my missing finger, largely due to the extreme sensitivity to pressure.
Holding the violin bow required excessive padding in the form of cotton balls, medical tape and fabric, just to be able to press hard enough with my thumb and healing finger to grip without excruciating pain.
When I dropped it, which happened a lot, I got mad. I got mad at myself, at the world, at my experience.
I resented the fact that I was being forced to relearn, forced to adapt, forced to grow. But somehow I knew better than to allow that anger to consume me.
So I’d take a deep breath, close my eyes, and do my best to keep my mind focused on a stubborn belief that I was going to be able to overcome this; that this wouldn’t beat me.
After two months, I had managed to relearn everything I had been able to do before the accident. Except shuffle a deck of cards. I couldn’t get the pressure right, and they’d end up either plunking down in an unshuffled stack, or flying all over the room.
I don’t even like playing cards. But having something I still couldn’t do really bothered me. I wanted to move on, to be past my accident. Yet this trivial thing eluded me, which poked at the tender underbelly of shame and inadequacy.
Elsewhere though, I had made great strides.
I had gotten back to typing a healthy 110 words per minute at work, I could play all my instruments, I could take out my contacts by myself, and I could floss my teeth.
What surprised me most of all, though, was that relearning these things didn’t actually require that much logical effort.
Yes, it took persistence, and yes I needed to work at them patiently, giving myself more grace than I found comfortable. It’s not as though I magically got all my old skills back overnight. But I wasn’t ever a conscious relearning, the way a child learns to read. There was no sounding out of letters and sounds. I didn’t practice muscle movements.
The way a Zen archer takes hundreds of thousands of shots, training the presence and clarity of the self rather than the form or technique of the body, I put myself through the hours of practice with the intent of encouraging my mind to get out of its own way.
And over time, it just sort of happened.
My Friend Shaun Loves Robots
One of his favorite toys is an 8-foot-tall, orange robotic arm that came out of an old Kodak factory. It was designed to be programed to do repetitive tasks at lightning-fast speeds.
You train, or program, in normal time, and then accelerate the execution. Like magic, the arm performs its duty with frightening accuracy. This is ideal in a manufacturing environment in which everything else is highly calculated. It takes the tedium (and arthritis) out of repetitive tasks previously performed by humans and can complete large scale projects in a fraction of the time.
These robots are able to function on this level because they operate based on absolute coordinates.
Tell it to go from one box to another and it can do it with insane accuracy and speed because it relies on exact movements. It’s not sizing up the box, anticipating its speed, and adjusting for variability like a human would do. It just goes, and it goes with precision.
Humans, in contrast, are highly relative creatures.
We are designed for a chaotic, random environment, and so everything we do, down to the depth of the breath we take, is reactive to the conditions of our current surroundings.
This has served us well throughout time because the world doesn’t exist in two boxes between which we need to move rapidly. The environment we were designed to navigate is comprised of sticks and rocks and holes and water and air and trees and other moving, unpredictable creatures.
Yet, for some reason, we seem fascinated by prescriptive solutions. We devour self-help books, adopt operating systems and try our best to accelerate the execution of our growth through better programming, as though our lives are fixed in place and external variables will never intrude.
Ever go on a diet, then go on vacation, then realize you’re no longer on your diet?
We Are Not Robots
We try to be like robots, traveling from one box to another with accuracy and speed, but our gifts lie elsewhere.
My journey of relearning how to type illustrates this.
I had a mental map of the keyboard subconsciously programed into my brain from years upon years of fervent familiarity, and because my ability to type was based on spatial awareness rather than muscle memory and specific keystrokes, my hands were able to adapt without much conscious effort.
I had absorbed my environment — in this case on a very detailed level — and because of this understanding of my position relative to my world, I was able to naturally adapt to work within it even after my hardware had changed.
Similarly, with music — specifically the flute or fingerpicking on the guitar — my mind simply shifted the fingerings, and occasionally told my middle finger to compensate for its missing buddy.
There was no conscious re-programming; my hands just adjusted themselves without my involvement.
I began to see the ways in which we adjust to our environment every day, and as I imparted my own experiences of adaptation following my accident, I found myself marveling at the small miracles which have enabled us to move with so much effort and grace throughout our world.
It occurred to me that perhaps this tendency to navigate relative to our physical surroundings is reflective of the way we are constantly searching for our metaphysical place in life.
Perhaps our minds and hearts are simply trying to orient themselves within the context of the unseen so that we can be prepared to adapt emotionally to the loss of a friend, a family member, a partner or a job.
And while we seek salvation in the metaphorical System Updates offered by new ideologies, self-help tactics or life-changing products, perhaps our greatest gifts come in the form of challenges that prove to us our own resilience.
As I removed my stitches, reluctantly unwrapping the reality of my new life, I had no idea the gift I was being given.
We are not robots, and for some this is a frustrating and inconvenient reality. It can feel limiting — even irritating — that in order to effectively perform a task we must first absorb the entirety of our environment.
But it is precisely our human need for understanding our place amidst the whole that makes us so incredibly, miraculously and effortlessly adaptable.
So What’s the Takeaway?
What I’ve realized from this experience, more than anything else, is that we deserve a lot of credit. The challenges we face every day should be proof enough of our incredible adaptability, but more often than not they only serve to make us feel inadequate.
I’ve also realized the importance of paying attention to the world around me, and of trusting my instinctive ability to navigate it. So as I carry on into the great unknown that is modern life, I will be quietly high-fiving (or, umm, high-fouring) myself each time a challenge shows me my own greatness, agility and perseverance.