If all you have is a hammer.

March 2, 2018 § 4 Comments

As the physical therapist was teaching me an exercise to relieve the weird pains in my upper back I mentioned that years ago a surgeon had offered to fuse three vertebrae.

“Of course you won’t be able to raise and lower your head,” he’d said. “And you could be paralyzed from the neck down, but the chance is very slim.”

I thanked him and got out of his office fast.

“You know why he recommended surgery?” asked the physical therapist.


“Because he’s a surgeon.”

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The physical therapist, a man who wielded a different hammer, offered me a simple stretching exercise to fix the same problem. And it has.

Each of us holds the hammer of our particular area of expertise. We  look for—and usually find—the familiar nail in every situation.

We are often rewarded by the outcome of wielding that hammer, but not always.

Some of us employ the hammer of logic, even when a situation is purely emotional. Some bring sympathy that blinds us to what is really going on. A great cook will cure the world with chicken soup, a teacher the secrets of long division.

Our area of expertise causes us to see the world in a certain way, and that bias dictates how we respond.

How should we think about this?

First, when the other guy is wielding the hammer, say a surgeon, look for the bias that expertise gives them. Are they seeing a nail when the problem might be something else? Get another opinion.

But second, and this is more important, take a look at the hammer in your own hand. How does what you know and what you excel at determine how you deal with the problems you encounter?

My own hammer is the stringing of words to tell a story. That may, at first, look like a joke hammer, one that goes, boy-oy-oing when wielded, but as our current political situation amply demonstrates, narrative has power.

When I look analytically at that tool I never question, I see that it has instilled in me a belief that life is meaningful, that wonder and joy are ever-present, a resolution just a plot twist away.

In dealing with others, I extend that assurance. It’ll be okay! Things will work out.

It is not always realistic, but it gives me hope so abundant I pass out encouragement like Santa (another well-told story) passes out Christmas gifts .

Often it is just the right tool, this optimism, but not always. Sometimes I am blind to what is real and unchangeable and my optimism hurts more than it helps.

Sometimes I should reach for a different tool, one that is less comfortable in my hand. And sometimes I should admit my kit doesn’t include the tool needed to make the repair.

Maybe the solution is to look at the problem first, to see it clearly, which is work. But it beats reaching for a hammer that does more harm than good, even if, like that surgeon, the chance you’ll cause paralysis is slim.

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§ 4 Responses to If all you have is a hammer.

  • Linda Wright says:

    I love this post. You hit the nail on the head (sorry for the pun).


  • KM Huber says:

    Often, I find my toolbox lacking so I turn to awareness, and sometimes I discover the necessary tool already in another’s hand, where I am not used to looking. I might be asked to take a swing or turn but not always. Still, it beats my reaching for what I once believed tried and true.


    • I find it humbling to realize that my assumptions are often all wrong, that I literally am seeing the situation through the lens of self. I sometimes think that self is a personal blindness we carry with us, that if only we could quit reading our own resume we would have a better shot at knowing what is really happening in the lives of those around us and be able to give genuine help or to see clearly that help will have to come from another source..

      Liked by 1 person

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