the law of unanticipated consequences

One day you have all your limbs. The next day you don’t. The change forces us to reconstruct our concept of self in painful and transformative ways. But there’s another side to this, one that’s less apparent.

Not only do we recast ourselves as characters in a lifelong play, our peers and friends reorient themselves to us as well. Particularly in the case of limb loss that results from trauma or disease, acquaintances suddenly shift from talking with Dave to talking to Dave The Amputee. Dave is familiar, easy to speak with, and unremarkable. DTA, on the other hand, is a tri-limbed creature that looks, talks, and acts much like Dave, but has this . . . difference that suddenly makes regular conversation more challenging.

It’s like our friends in the pre-limb-loss era are all talented supporting actors in a play. They know their lines, enter and exit on cue, and generally reinforce our general impression of ourselves. (After all, we’re the stars of our own show.) But remove just one group of fingers or toes from the scenario and these talented role players become fumbling amateurs doing community improv at the local high school on Wednesday nights.

In my experience, one of the easiest ways for them to try and bridge this suddenly ineffable communication gap involves commenting on things like bravery, the previously unseen strength of the human spirit, and, well, just the plain old heroic nature of the suddenly limb-deprived. Dave is just another guy; DTA is, dare we say it, remarkable. The problem here isn’t that the supporting players reorient themselves to what they perceive as the changed nature of the lead actor – that’s natural. It’s that I – the George Clooney of my own, unending biopic – believe it.

For example, before my accident, I ran 5k’s and 10k’s and never got so much as a nod of affirmation from my fellow racers. But do the same thing with a prosthetic leg and suddenly everyone on the race course is your best friend. You’re inspirational. You’re a sign of all that’s right with humanity. Having seen you on the course, parents later scream at their pre-schoolers that the words “I can’t!” must be stricken from their vocabulary, as they can indeed learn string theory before kindergarten “if that man with one leg can finish a road race.”

As I think back, I’m embarrassed by how great the difference is between the “guy next door” I once was and the more modern me who periodically and blindly morphs into a sun around which all other planets revolve in a previously undiscovered universe. The pattern has repeated itself multiple times over the last 14 years.

Those who’ve known me for a long time would probably agree that I have a healthy ego to begin with. I’m the guy who sits in the audience watching a movie or play and says under my breath, “I could do that!” as I watch the Oscar-winning lead actor, an individual who attended Yale Drama School and studied under Lee Strasberg. Successfully run a professional sports league? I could do that. Writer of the next great American novel? I could do that.

Second, I’m the kind of person who believes that he will end up doing Great Things. And I think that even though I lack the discipline, focus, and, in most instances, training necessary to achieve that goal. So I glide through life, certain that there’s a Destiny that awaits me, like a crown awaits its king. (To refer back to a recurring theme in most of my recent posts: please see Webster’s definition of “delusional.”)

Now, plant the following verbal seeds in that soil of fertile egotism: “What you did that night, walking into the middle of the road, that was heroic!”; “I’m not going to complain about [insert problem of the day here] – look what you’ve overcome!”; “You did distance running with a prosthesis? That’s amazing!” Even just a few scattered showers of praise like this and up sprouts the toxic weed, Id-parthenium hysterophorus, characterized by explosive growth and possible death if ingested.

The best protection against this comes from supporting actors who say exactly the things you don’t want to hear. The ones who reorient you to who you really are. Whenever my head swells to heretofore unseen dimensions, one of the unfortunate minions who inhabits my universe invariably offers up an opinion that jars me back to reality.

For example (to use a non-LL/D-specific example), I have this conviction that I’m one of the cleverest, most funny people on the planet. My wife, however, correctly punctures my rapidly-expanding balloon of comic genius by generally not reacting to what I consider A-level material, or by uttering flatly, “You’re not funny.” (Incidentally, my wife is only partially correct. I am funny, though not for the reasons I think I am.)

My limb loss is a double-edged sword. Especially early in my LL/D life, it made me insecure and painfully self-aware. But when fueled by praise from my acquaintances, it also allowed me to convince myself that I was/am special in a way that I haven’t really earned.

I have consistently and mistakenly conflated others’ positive opinions of me – opinions based on nothing more than the fact that I live with LL/D – with actual achievement. And the more people I meet and share my story with, the more feedback of that type I get. I’m at the point where if I read my script to an audience and fail to get seconds of stunned silence after I finish, followed by the obligatory, stammered fragments of wonderment, I wonder what’s wrong with them. Weren’t they listening to that incredible story? It’s insidious.

My wife challenged me over the weekend to try and “pick her up.” (File this under “if you don’t do it right the first time, it will come back to haunt you, whether it’s 30 days or 30 years later.”) She notes, correctly, that my effort to ask her to date me back in 1986 was, in a word, “lame,” (true) and that I didn’t officially “ask” her to marry me as much as I passively allowed her to connect the dots that would compel that outcome (true again). And so, 25 years after we first started dating, she threw down the gauntlet, and dared me to use my considerable (in my own mind) verbal and mental powers to convince her that she should go out with me. (This connects back to my thesis, such as it is – bear with me.)

It started badly. I’m almost clinically incapable of small talk with a stranger, even when that “stranger” is someone I’ve been with for nearly 3 decades. (Score one for the Myers-Brigg personality test, which dropped me into the upper right-hand corner of its personality box, which brings into play the word, “introvert.”) But I quickly managed to make it so much worse.

I went plunging straight off the cliff when the “stranger” unexpectedly asked me, “So, I see you’re wearing a wedding band. Where’s your wife?” And in a moment of simultaneously singular clarity and stupidity, the following words came tumbling out of my mouth: “My wife? Oh she’s dead. It’s a horrible story, really.”

Suddenly, I was on the receiving end of a monologue about Freud, repression, and lots of other things that I couldn’t fully understand because I was sweating so loudly that I couldn’t hear the rest of her comments. (For those of you who are interested, I then told my wife, whom, remember, I was trying to ask out, that her doppelganger left the earthly realm after getting poisoned by licking cheap stamps. I thus compounded my borderline-suicidal (but at least original) error by falling back on the derivative, lifting her cause of death from George Costanza’s experiences on Seinfeld. Moreover, I used the Seinfeld reference only because I know that my wife likes the show. So, get this, I cheated in a futile attempt to win this game. Remarkably, as I write this today, I remain married.)

I tell this story not to illustrate my epic idiocy – though the aforementioned tale shows it in breathtaking technicolor – but rather, for the following statement my wife made as I floundered along: “We’ve been talking for 20 minutes [it felt like 4 hours] and you haven’t asked one question about me.” And so, in the middle of this little game that served primarily to emphasize that a monkey would do a better job of courting my wife than I did, I pulled out one painful truth: it’s all about me. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that my limb loss has enhanced, not checked that lovely personality trait.

There is a silver lining, however. My limb loss also has made me more self-reflective. So even though I get swept up in the Magnificence of Me from time to time, I also have moments of clarity that I historically found elusive. (In this respect, losing a limb has arguably polarized the two poles of my personality, making me both more insufferable and more tolerable at the same time.) So I can see that the benefit limb loss offers me is the opportunity to connect with others, to be a great supporting actor in their personal motion picture. But the more dangerous downside, at least for me, is that I can all too easily slide into believing my own hype – I really am a stupendous person, am I not? – thereby sacrificing those connections that, when all is said and done, actually mean something.

4 thoughts on “the law of unanticipated consequences

  1. Ok – my ID: That was a wonderful post. You could have picked me up using ANY part of this well-written, self-reflective, honestly humble, yet heroic post.

    You never cease to amaze me. And though perhaps “unprofessional” so feel free to delete this post, “You had me at ‘hello’: one leg or two!

  2. I don’t think you are amazing because you have one leg…because I already thought you were pretty amazing back when you had two legs. 🙂 You were smart, funny, kind, honorable, and (looking back) had just enough ego to give you the drive you need to get through life relatively unscathed. Granted, I haven’t seen you in many years but I see no good reason to change my opinion now that you have one leg.

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