In my teaching days, we shared the story of Paul Brand with our students – a mostly unknown doctor who spent most of his career studying leprosy and treating people with this disease. As it turns out, it is not just a disease of the Biblical era; leprosy still afflicts people around the globe.
Dr. Brand was asked how he handled the daily deluge of brokenness, sorrow, and pain that came into his offices in India and later in Louisiana. How did he, a very faithful Christian, make sense of a world filled with despair and disease? He answered, “I’ve found it helpful to try to think like the Creator.” Now, this sounds at first like a classic doctor-with-a-god-complex answer. But he continues, “My engineering team at Carville (La.) has worked with the human hand. What engineering perfection we find there! I have a bookcase filled with surgical textbooks that describe operations people have devised for the injured hand … but I know of no procedure that succeeds in improving a normal hand… After operating on thousands of hands, I must agree with Isaac Newton: ‘In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.’”*
I don’t think about thumbs very often; even as I’m typing this essay, my thumbs are just tapping the space bar without much attention on my part. (And now that I am thinking about them, I’m messing up my typing!) I have a friend who uses the “I’m all thumbs” phrase which catches my attention mostly for its quaintness. Most of the time any attention paid to thumbs on my part is via quick check-ins with my kids or on zoom meetings, “How are things? Thumbs up?” Now that I think about it, I’m also prone to reference thumbs for their place in the evolution chain, rendering me capable of things that my dogs are not.
So maybe thumbs are more ubiquitous than I thought, but Newton and Brand still get credit for bringing a particular reverence to this appendage. And whether or not it’s the thumb on a daily basis, I do have my own version of this practice, that in the deluge of stories about all that is wrong and terrible, there are pieces of creation that remind me of God’s presence. Remembering to wonder – to wonder about and to wonder in this world – is one of the best antidotes for despair that I can think of.
My list is probably different from your list. Because of Dr. Brand, my list does include the human hand and its dexterity. Recently, thanks to decades of scientific research and grand efforts, it includes the images from the James Webb telescope which fill my small screen with reminders of all that is larger. Similarly and because of a trip we took when I was a child, my list includes whales which both for their faithful migration and their enormity help me keep perspective on my little life. Because my parents read poetry and gave me an anthology for Christmas when I was little, my list includes poetry and the boundless ways humans connect and express ourselves. Thankfully, I could go on…
I wonder what’s on your list? Is it the thumb or something else that convinces you, or maybe just hints at God’s existence?
*“Dr. Paul Brand: Detours to Happiness” in Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church, Philip Yancey