Sound of One Hand Clapping

The Simpsons, Season 2, Episode 6, “Dead Putting Society.”

Lisa: “I have a riddle for you. What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

Bart: “Piece of cake.”

Bart slaps his (three) fingers against his palm, creating a sound.

Lisa: “No, Bart! It’s a 3,000 year old riddle with no answer. It’s supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought!”

Bart: “No answer? Lisa, listen up!”

Bart claps his one hand again.

My first sociological exposure came from watching early episodes of The Simpsons. Among the countless jokes and allusions, the interaction above captivated my childhood imagination most. I couldn’t understand how Bart so snappingly answered what was supposed to be an unanswerable riddle. It would take my Grandfather to find the explanation.

Charles Wilk Sr., known to us as “Papa”, was a child of The Great Depression, served in the Korean War, and was a tenacious 50s’ patriarch. He built his own garage, learned to fix his car, and repaired his toilet pipes single handedly. Most importantly, he looked down on anyone who needed help. My mother recalls that when she mentioned Cary Grant’s use of psychoanalysis, my grandfather remarked that “real men don’t need therapy.”

For my cousins and I, exploring his house during holidays as our “Nana” showered us with limitless sweets and affection, my grandfather was a distant presence that occasionally scolded us for venturing where we didn’t belong. I never expected he’d be much else.

I was eight years old when my father got a frantic call from my grandmother. “Papa” was delusional, she said, and threatened her safety. When my father arrived at the house in Washington, he found a web of hidden rooms and stockpiled ammo. In one chilling recollection, he described stopping my grandfather from obsessively rummaging through a pile of laundry, only to find a handgun hidden at the bottom.

As I now know, my grandfather had a long-standing depressive disorder culminating in a “psychotic episode” that required hospitalization. If he had gotten help years earlier, who knows what could have gone differently. The next time I saw him, lurking for a brief moment in the background of a video call, he was a shell of his former self: withdrawn, sedated, solemn. With that image burned into my brain forever, I dedicated myself to avoiding his mistakes.
Its then when I found the answer to The Simpsons riddle, and with it conceived the most powerful metaphor in my life. I rejected Bart’s “hypothesis” and found my own: A lone hand can’t make much of a sound at all, just as a lone person requires others. They both need a helping hand.

 Like Bart, my Grandfather sought “the one handed clap,” refusing help at any cost. This led him to a life of desperation, isolation, and eventual impotence. With 20th century masculinity so intimately intertwined with stoicism, he was a victim of his time.

I embrace the other path. I’m lucky to live in a society where toxic masculinity has a loosening grip. I employ a great number of “helping hands” in my parents, teachers, role models, and friends. I strive for compassionate, mutually vulnerable relationships with all of those around me. I do this for those who didn’t have the opportunity.

Mental health issues are continuous in my family legacy—addiction, depression, suicide—with individuals linked by their isolative tendencies. I will break this pattern. As one cartoon, four-fingered left hand, I will find many righties to support me in making my life as prosperous as it can be.

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