‘Reason is our soul’s left hand, Faith her right.’ — John Donne
Growing up in a religious extended family, several aunts used to forbid me to eat in their homes with my left hand, which resulted in my often forgoing dinner (I am as dextrous with my right hand as most people are with their right foot).
Their disapproval stemmed from religious sensibilities that equate the left hand with uncleanliness. Historically and across most cultures, left-handed people were also seen as witches (see Joan of Arc) or thought to be channelling the devil (see the Bible).
The word ‘left’ in many languages signifies something untoward. The old English word is lyft, which means weak. The word in French is gauche, which also means graceless or awkward. In Italian, left is sinistra. It’s enough to offend anyone.
The term ‘left-wing’ originated during the French Revolution when the King’s supporters in the National Assembly stood on the right and the pro-revolutionists stood on the left. Thereby, at last, shifting the ominous undertones of ‘left’ to what it’s at least come to mean in politics: progressive and forward thinking. Vive la révolution!
Cherchez la left hand
In college I took that old freshman favourite, Psych 101 (Introductory Psychology), and studied handedness for my final paper. I discovered that while we constitute only 10% of the population, left-handed people are proportionally more successful, often breaking moulds and advancing their fields.
The list includes polymath Leonardo da Vinci and artist Michelangelo (whose Adam in the Sistine Chapel is shown to have been created by God via his left hand) as well as pioneering thinkers like Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Mother Theresa and Marie Curie.
There are many left-handed record breakers such as sportsman Sachin Tendulkar, astronaut Neil Armstrong, filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, actor Amitabh Bachchan and media wonder Oprah Winfrey. There are the industry shape-changers like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. And those who’ve had a transformative influence on contemporary music: Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Annie Lennox and Lady Gaga.
Left-handed leaders include Alexander the Great and Napoleon. The British Royal Family is infested with left-handers, including the current head of the monarchy, Elizabeth II, as well as the next two in line – Charles and William. Five of the last seven United States Presidents have been left-handed: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Left-handers also fall on the other extreme end of the social spectrum. An aunt explained to me that Osama bin Laden was deviant, not representative of other Muslims, because he was left-handed. Although his identity was never confirmed, we know Jack the Ripper was left-handed because of the way the victims’ throats were cut.
My college research showed left-handed students consistently come top in school and college exams, making us at least academically brighter than average. Twenty percent of Mensa members are left-handed as well.
We are also prone to poor eyesight, allergies and dyslexia (a tick on all three for me, though my dyslexia is mild – if I recall seeing a street on the east, it is often actually on the west, as my brain flips the image). In addition, we have a propensity to be depressed, schizophrenic and die young.
In short, left-handed people are super clever, highly talented and often mentally unstable. This explains perfectly why more than half my friends are left-handed.
Only left-handers are in their right minds
It was also in my first year in college when I heard that right-handed people were thought to be dominantly left-brained (centre for verbal, auditory and language skills) and the left-handed were dominantly right-brained (more visual-spatial, creative and intuitive).
For my art class, students had to practise specific drawing exercises to access their right-brain perspective. My being left-handed and having a left-handed mother apparently made me ‘ultra left-handed’ and therefore ‘ultra right-brained’ and I was exempt from these exercises. (Recent studies however show that a right- and left-brain divide isn’t as neat as pop psychologists may have wished.)
When nothing feels right, go left
I notice that when I’m tired or ill, my tendency is to seek refuge in the visual world. Returning sick from London last week I gravitated towards pictures instead of reading. It was the equivalent of being too exhausted to speak a foreign language with someone and sharing an ice cream cone together instead.
I don’t know if it has anything to do with my left-handedness and what that may signify (whether real or imagined) of my brain’s preferred practice but I now recognise the comfort in also communicating through images and pictures, colours and space.
Perhaps what this means is that my soul craves more balance. Between work and play. Company and solitude. Focus and flexibility. Containment and expansion. Stability and change. Activity and coasting. Silence and stimulation. Holding and releasing. Words and pictures. When one side is in overdrive it feels good to shift over, gain some equilibrium and breathe easy again.
‘Damned infernal gizmo. My kingdom for a left-handed can opener.’ — Mr Burns in The Simpsons
Some left-handed people who get the balance right by pushing boundaries on both the information/technology side as well as the creative/arts.
James Cameron, known for exploring the relationship between humans and technology in his films, has spent much of his immense earnings towards hi-tech deep-sea exploration. Watch Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, which he wrote, directed, produced and edited.
Lewis Carroll was equally adept at creating a fantastical world as he was with word play. He was a photographer as well as a mathematician while, like so many lefties, suffering ill health, the poor man. Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Carroll wrote in 1865 and which remains one of the most enduring and endearing books in English literature.
Jimi Hendrix pioneered the use of stereophonic phasing and we all know that nobody can play the guitar like Jimi. Hendrix became the highest-paid musician in 1969 (not exactly a slow year…), thanks to his equally significant songwriting talent. Listen to his debut album, Are You Experienced?