The other morning I was walking down the stairs when I noticed a five-fingered appendage on the end of my arm, holding the handrail. My parents and schoolteachers had taught me it was called a “hand.” But I got to wondering, what exactly is my hand? The answer, it seemed to me, would come from observing what I could do with it.

At the moment it was helping to stabilize me on the stairs. It does other things, too. Right now it’s taking part in typing these words on the computer. Earlier it was conveying some chocolates to my mouth for dessert.

I was getting a clue to what my hand was: a stabilizer for my body, a means to place thoughts on screen, and a conveyor of tasty treats. Now, if I could just build some kind of gyroscopic stabilizer system that could take electronic dictation, with maybe a reservoir for chocolate milkshakes and a straw to go with it, I would have a third hand.

I mentioned that to my wife just now, and she said, “Tom, that’s not what your hand is.” I asked her why not. “Well, it leaves out lots of things your hand can do, for one thing. But that’s not the main thing. It really misses the whole point of what a hand is. You could build a contraption that does everything you can think of, but it wouldn’t be your hand!”

“Well, that’s your opinion,” I answered, “but really, you have quite a conservative, strait-jacketed view of what a hand is.”

Today I noticed that I was sitting here with this computer, and I got to wondering what I was. I figured I could observe what I was for, and that would tell me what I was. It seems I’m for talking with my wife sometimes; she seems to like that. Another thing I seem to do is sweep the floor in the hallway and living room; sometimes I notice that’s needed before the other family members do. I pick up heavy things that no one else in our family can lift. So it seems that what I am is a talker/sweeper/lifter.

I mentioned that to my wife, and she got flustered with me. “Tom, that’s not all you do, not at all! And even if you made a list of everything you do, that wouldn’t explain what you are! You’re a man, a human being, and human beings are more than just what they’re for, aren’t they?

“Okay, honey,” I said. “That’s your view. But really, you’re stuffing a lot of metaphysical baggage into your definition of what I am, aren’t you?”

This was putting some stress on our marriage. I got to thinking about what marriage really is, and I figured I could understand it if I just knew what it was for. It serves a purpose of letting my wife and me share a bank account and an insurance plan. We get to take time off work when the other one is sick. It gives us moral cover in case we might feel guilty about intimacy together. It simplifies our legal relationships with our children. And of course we wouldn’t have gotten married if we hadn’t loved each other, so I guess somehow that fits into what marriage is.

Now I know. Marriage is a love thing that lets people share bank accounts and insurance plans and medical time off. It straightens out a few other legal details, and then there’s also some you-know-what in the mix of it all. That’s what it’s for, so that must be what it is. That’s the true essence of marriage.

What with all the stress we’ve already had on our relationship today, I’m not passing this discovery on to my wife. I have a suspicion she might find something wrong with it. But I’m satisfied now that I know exactly what my hand is, what I am, and what marriage is. All it took was figuring out what you can do with them.

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