And on the Third Hand

Freud said Anatomy is Destiny, and maybe it is, but in a different sense than he intended it. Maybe gender isn’t the be-all and end-all. Maybe something else anatomical is at work. Let me offer you my Theory of the Third Hand for your consideration:

There’s no escape. We’re bombarded by the media 24/7:  Barack Obama’s an  alien,  impostor,  monster. No, no,  a wise, serene Messiah.  Sarah Palin’s an airhead, arrogant, monstrous; no, she’s wise, forthright, a prophet.

Do you favor the Tea Party? Or perhaps you lean toward liberal Democrats. Remind me, which are the dangerous, bigoted blind zealots, and which the righteous defenders of the true American Way?

Do you notice a certain monotony, a certain lack of nuance in the claims and counter-claims?

It’s as if we root for a favorite team, we’ll call them the All-Angels, who’re playing against the evil All-Devils. We get a running box score daily from television, radio, newspapers, the Internet, for all the world as if the Angels and Devils were actually real human beings playing real games.

But in the real world the score would be Angels, 0, Devils, 0, because there are no such pure players, no such pure game.


It’s a Wall Street commonplace  that the best investment opportunity is one offering a “pure play.” What’s that?  The opportunity to invest in a company with some wonderful new asset or invention, a cure for lung cancer, maybe, or exclusive trade rights to a hitherto closed market. Well, you’ll say, such things do happen, sounds good to me!

But in fact they almost never happen. In order to get a pure play, you have to be able to invest directly in that wonderful new opportunity, and you can’t, because (outside of startups) companies are already diluted by their existing products and services.

And just as companies are mixed bags, so are we human beings. We’re complicated by accidents of birth, family, physical characteristics, personal history. We’re not a pure play. We’re neither angels nor devils, and we’re caught, as the Psalms lament, between heaven and earth.

That goes for people, and for issues as well, which don’t exist objectively “out there” somewhere, but are positions taken and opposed by fallible, mixed human beings.


No one has an exclusive on truth, or righteousness.

The rabbis taught that every person is born with a yetzer ha-ra and a yetzer ha-tov, an evil inclination and a good inclination. I picture one tiny angel perched on my left shoulder, urging me to do the right thing, while on my right shoulder perches another tiny angel, justifying all my worst instincts. And who wins?

Well, it would be nice to say that my good angel always outtalks the other one, but you wouldn’t believe me; and you’d be right. I have two angels, but I am no angel.

And frankly, neither are you. We’re all complex human beings, not cardboard angels.

So how come we constantly hallow or demonize? Why this awful need to simplify people and issues and conflicts that are anything but simple? That aren’t a pure play, but a choice between good things that are mutually exclusive, or of the lesser of two unavoidable evils?

Well, as Freud said,  Anatomy is destiny, although he meant it about gender, not about the real issue.


I think the troubles in our world flow from the anatomical fact that humans are bilateral symmetrical organisms, that is, that we have two hands,  and I’ll tell you how I came to this great insight.

A long time ago, my daughter still in a stroller, I got bored with park talk about diapers and went instead on long daily walks with another mother and daughter. Besides giving our kids fresh air and us conversational pleasure,  those walks showed us how much we needed an extra hand. We needed one to pick up our toddler, one to heft the grocery bag, and one more, for instance, to put the key in the front door. And that was the origin of my Third Hand Theory, which goes like this:

Since human beings have only two hands, it’s natural for us to envision only two possibilities, THIS opposing THAT. Thereby every discussion becomes — an argument. But if we had a third hand, ah, how different it would be!

On the one hand we have THIS. On the other hand, THAT. (Opposing walls of black and white.) But now we wave our third hand, the other other hand, and — a miracle. A vast space opens, radiant with colors of the living rainbow, colors of possibility, opportunity, innovation, creativity. Our world enlarges, and our choices, and our selves. Something new may be born.

Who knows? Maybe somewhere in some other universe there already exists a world where creatures very like human beings can tolerate ambiguity, embrace difference, and flourish in possibilities; all because they, unlike us, are lucky enough to have been born with three hands.

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