Lessons of a Lifetime

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Volume 19 · Issue 7 · November/December 2009 | Download PDF

by Marvin Knittel, EdD

Lessons Lifetime 01It was 1941. Mom stood in the doorway of the porch peering through the screen watching me slowly tie my shoelaces with one hand. A week earlier, a salesman with one arm had stopped at the farm. I was playing in the yard when he saw me and decided to show me how to tie my shoes.

Mom watched me, resisting the urge to help, trying to follow the surgeon’s advice. He had told Mom and Dad not to do things for me even when they were afraid that I might fail or get hurt – that I would need to learn how to do things on my own because it’s a two-handed world.

Mom and Dad followed his advice religiously but worried about my future and how I would make a living. I also worried, but about different issues, such as whether or not people would like me because I looked different. I figured I could do whatever any person with two arms could do, but no matter what, I couldn’t hide that empty sleeve. I felt sorry for myself, but I didn’t want people to know it because I didn’t want to look needy. So, rather than show weakness and vulnerability, I showed the opposite. I tried to be the best at everything I did. I was determined not to be discounted for any reason.

Lessons Lifetime 02As a result, I went head-to-head with the toughest. As a youth, I was the leadoff hitter and center fielder in junior legion baseball, played more minutes of football than any other player in my senior year in high school, went to the state track meet 3 years in a row in three different events, sang solos and was on the winning debate team. As an adult, I was a university professor and climbed the professional ladder to department chairperson, to dean of instruction, to academic vice president, to interim president and then went back to being a successful professor. Still, that empty sleeve continued to haunt me. Logically it should have made no difference, but that empty sleeve remained a shadowy presence.

But I am ahead of myself. It all began on a sunny Tuesday afternoon October 3, 1939, when I was a 5-year-old first grader. My older brother, sister and I were headed home from school. We always rode our pony the final half-mile to our house across the pasture. The pony trotted down the final hill and abruptly turned to the right into the barnyard. We all fell into the grubby barnyard dirt. My left wrist lay twisted and broken with the bone protruding from the skin. At that time, before public use of penicillin, a compound fracture buried in barnyard waste meant gangrene, and gangrene usually meant amputation or death.

Four days later I was in surgery, drifting somewhere between life and death, and by the grace of God survived. Later, when I was about 13 years old, I began to seriously wonder if there was a reason I was still alive or if my ruminations were a romanticized version of a random event. No clap of thunder or huge voice from the sky gave me an answer. Nevertheless, my encounter with death forced me to look at the meaning of my life.

After 70 years with one arm, I have developed some insights to share with others who are living with limb loss. Here are a few of them.

Lessons Lifetime 03Don’t take yourself too seriously. As a narcissistic 5-year-old, I was concerned more about me than anyone else. When I was a teen-ager, I continued to be far too concerned about me and how I was judged by other teen-agers and adults. I had yet to learn that most people do not judge me by how I look. They may observe that I have one arm, but then they forget and go on their way. Even when they make a judgment, it is usually more positive than negative. I finally learned that my appearance is far less significant than I thought. I have concentrated on taking myself less seriously and being less self-centered.

Overcompensation can be costly.

Most of us, to varying degrees, compensate for perceived deficiencies by emphasizing strengths. We call it a defense mechanism because it helps maintain balance in our lives. My personal efforts to compensate at first seemed like a good thing for my career, but the stress of trying to be the best at everything ultimately compromised my immune system and made me allergic to a large part of my diet. My immune system has only returned to normal after retirement. Trying to deny the reality of the limb loss by overcompensating might come at a high price.

Embrace your differences.

You’ve heard the old adage: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Reframe your perception of who you are. Instead of thinking “I am different,” think “I am a person (emphasis on person) with one limb.” Be gentle in the way you see and talk to yourself. Picture a fully functioning human being as you walk into a room or down the street. The adjustment begins in the mind. I have tried very hard for years to say to myself, “I am first and foremost a person. I am a person who happens to have one arm. I need not apologize for it, and I am satisfied with me.”

Healing must happen before growth.

During my freshman year in college, I met with a counselor at the university to discuss my fear of dating. I had dated in high school, but I was afraid to ask girls out who didn’t know me because I didn’t want to be turned down. Most people are afraid of rejection in one form or another, whether fear of asking for a job or a promotion or fear of being alone. Our dreams of moving on with our lives after a severe loss or trauma are tied closely to our psychological health. Physically, we may have healed, but psychologically we may be stuck somewhere in the past, attached to the mental picture of ourselves before the trauma. A legitimate question is: “How do I let go and move on?” You may choose to answer it on your own, but sometimes people need help with this. If you have unresolved issues and fears that are keeping you stuck, you may need to speak about this to a friend or seek counseling from a professional.

Be willing to accept help, and even ask for it.

Asking for help when you need it is not a sign of weakness. I have become accustomed to asking for help when I truly need it. For example, when the cashier at the supermarket lays the credit card receipt on the small ledge in front of me, it’s difficult to sign without the tiny piece of paper slipping around all over the place. I am comfortable with asking the cashier to hold the paper still for me while I sign my name. I have yet to find a cashier turn me down or even sigh while doing it. Asking for help is an inescapable and normal thing to do.

Author’s Note: This article is offered as food for thought. I have no illusions that I have answered all the questions. Space prohibits me from sharing more lessons. Please share your lessons with me by e-mail. I will treasure your thoughts.

Photos courtesy of Marvin Knittel.

Lessons Lifetime 04Marvin Knittel, EdD, is a retired professor of counseling psychology, has an upper-limb loss and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He can be contacted at mdknittel@gmail.com. His autobiography, Life Is Not Random, is available from the same e-mail address for $14.95.