May You Be in Good Hands
I have lost my grip—happily so. Last night, I shook the hands of over 700
new Furman graduates as they crossed the stage to grasp in their own
hands a hard-earned diploma. My hands are still sore from the ceremony
and the impromptu gatherings thereafter. Yet my aching palms tingle with
Holding on. Letting go. That is what
commencement ceremonies celebrate and represent. And it is not
accidental that we use our hands to express such profound sentiments.
Hands signify important beginnings and endings. We are born with
clenched fists needing everything done for us, yet we die with open
hands leaving everything behind. In this context our hands become
metaphors for our very humanness. A good life involves progressing
beyond an infantile preoccupation with selfish needs (clenched hands) to
a mature selflessness that enables us to leave this world with open and
giving hands. Holding on. Letting go.
We often take our hands
for granted, but they constitute one of the remarkable features that
separate human beings from animals. Only the human thumb is long enough
and flexible enough to touch all the other finger tips. Sir Isaac Newton
once said that the human thumb alone was sufficient proof of God's
Hands are miraculous instruments that combine the
creative with the mundane. In 1833 Sir Charles Bell, a preeminent
Scottish anatomist, noted that the "human hand is so beautifully formed,
its actions are so powerful, so free and yet so delicate that there is
no thought of its complexity as an instrument; we use it as we draw our
breath, unconsciously." Hands handle silverware, build walls, plant
gardens, pull triggers, write poems, sculpt statues, manipulate
keyboards, and perform delicate surgery. Aristotle called the human hand
the "organ of organs, the instruments of instruments."
hands are not simply utilitarian instruments composed of twenty-seven
bones, nineteen muscles, and numerous tendons, cartilage, and ligaments.
Hands clasp mysteries no one fully understands. They are often
signatures of the self. Portrait painters emphasize the hands of their
subjects because they are more than tools to fabricate and grasp things;
they are tokens of individual personality and symbols of social
significance. Babies are greeted at birth with a gentle spank to awaken
their consciousness. Weddings center on the holding of hands and the
exchange of rings. Funerals end with the symbolic tossing of a handful
of earth onto a casket. Holding on. Letting go.
Hands are also
the active agents of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. No other part
of the human body is so intimately related to human behavior as the
hands. Our hands fidget when we're nervous, shake when we're angry, and
go limp when we're disheartened.
Lively hands manifest lively
minds. Quintilian, the first-century Roman specialist in public
speaking, advised orators to be more attentive to the use of their hands
because they can "almost be said to speak." While speaking, we use hand
gestures to accentuate our arguments and dramatize our feelings. Hands
also create emotional bonds. We extend our hands to greet a stranger; we
hold another's hand to provide security; we caress a loved one's hand
to convey affection; we raise prayerful hands to express communion with
God. In Michelangelo's majestic painting on the ceiling of the Sistine
chapel in Rome, Adam is shown extending his hand to touch the
outstretched finger of his Maker.
Reaching out. Holding on.
Letting go. Our hands serve as messengers of our most powerful emotions.
So as I look at my own creased and scarred hands, let them ache and
then let them heal, for they serve as tactile markers of life's most
important moments. Godspeed graduates! The next chapter of your new
lives is in good hands.
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University