Saturday, April 22, 2006


I recently read Oliver Sacks' book, A Leg to Stand On. In it he relates his experiences following a severe leg injury. After surgery, the leg appeared to be healing well, but Sacks found himself in a bizarre state; he was unable to feel his leg or even realize that it was his leg. This was the inverse of the experience of amputees who feel pain in a leg that is no longer there.

By fits and starts, Sacks regained feeling in his leg. When it came time to walk again, he couldn't remember or even imagine how to do it. At first he took calculated and deliberate steps. Gradually, with the help of music, he learned to use his leg normally. He described this as recovering bodily grace. I don't think he meant to say he walked gracefully. Rather it was the capacity to walk without calculation, without thinking of every move; to walk in an integrated, natural way.

Sacks' use of the word grace led me to think of other meanings. We say grace before a meal. We exploit the grace period for completing financial and legal transactions. In church, we hear about the grace of God, the undeserved mercy he shows us. What about the Spanish word, gracias? And since we speak of God's grace and mercy in the same breath, how is gracias related to the French, merci?

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of grace goes on for several pages. The primary meanings are: I. Pleasing quality, gracefulness (attractiveness, charm, elegance, refinement, honor, embellishment.) II. Favor (goodwill, privilege, dispensation, permission, virtue, mercy, clemency, pardon.) III. Thanks.

None of these definitions seems to be exactly what Sacks is talking about. He is reaching for a deeper meaning of the first definition. More than a pleasing quality, bodily grace implies the seamless integration of many functions; a process or system that is fit, right. (The word right also has several meanings, and in some uses, means the opposite of grace/favor. But we'll leave that discussion for another time.)

What Sacks seems to be getting at is something we need a lot more of these days. In our everyday lives we're rushed and hassled, out of kilter with time. We're consuming the world's resources at a rate that is not sustainable. We think only in nationalistic terms when we consider economic policies and stratigic interests. How can we get back into a state of grace? I don't know the answer, but maybe we need to start relaxing to the music of toleration and kindness.


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