Toeing the Line

It is a matter of undisputed fact that breaking a toe is the most painful thing a mortal can experience in this life. [1]

The physical discomfort of it all is enough — the broken bone, the horrible contusions, the sheared toenails that stem from the broken toe, but the sheer humiliation of breaking a toe is the kicker: you are lying on the ground screaming in pain stoically accepting the pain in a manly way and nobody gives a flying fart about it. To the dreary world, you have broken something insignificant and are a big baby total stud, and not a single person cares about you; in fact you are a bit of a nuisance because it looks like you are making a big deal out of something that is only slightly worse than a hangnail and can you please move out of the way. You have descended below all things, but in a fairly useless way.

Knowest thou not the condescension of Steve?

Knowest thou not the condescension of Steve?

Possibly the worst part about breaking a toe [2] is that you will probably have no interesting story to tell about it. “I broke my toe” stories are variants of (a) “I stubbed it real bad” (b) “I ran too much, like a fool” or (c) “I have osteogenesis imperfecta – the kids called me Mr. Glass”. Nobody ever broke a toe from kicking a dragon in the balls [3]. My story: see (a) above. I was chasing the kids, smashed my toe into a corner, and dropped like a bad transmission. I writhed in agony while Sumer yelled at me to sit down for dinner [4].

Indeed, as the hymn sings: in the secret heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see. Except that the eye can see it; it looks like a black-blue swollen toe. As I sit at work elevating my ridiculous foot, which I have wrapped in an incredibly stylish velcro-strapped surgical shoe, I realize that I have a little more compassion now for people who suffer from the little things. A friend broke a finger a few weeks ago; a co-worker has been fighting a cough for weeks; my daughter has a wiggly and painful front tooth. This is suffering not to be discounted, even though it’s SO EASY to discount it all. I suffer from a lot of flaws and temptations, but this is one I rarely withstand: to refuse to take the suffering of others seriously, especially if their pain doesn’t come from something big and dramatic. I’m no Buddhist but I do respect the concept of compassion, specifically that all-encompassing compassion that becomes possible to believe in and comprehend when we are willing to confront the illusion of separation between us. I’m not willing to fully consider the suffering of others because they are not connected to me, they are not part of myself, while at the same time the immensity of my own pain [5] is completely invisible to others. I rely on this separation as a way of preserving my day-to-day comfort as I drive my SUV to work, then to Costco, then back home for movie night. If I ever started to consider the suffering of others with the same degree of focus as my own, I’d be paralyzed and no longer able to enjoy all these things.[6]

My 6-year-old son is made of better stuff than me in that respect. When I hurt my foot I sat on the couch, holding the toe, testing how I could move it and wincing in pain. He came up to me and gently put his hand on my leg. “It’ll be alright Daddy,” he said softly. “It hurts right now but you will feel better soon, I promise.” I could hear my own words echoed back at me from times when I’d comforted him with a scrape or a bruise. Then he asked me if he could give me a blessing on my foot: “a special prayer,” he called it. I told him that I would really like it if he would give me that blessing. My boy knelt down on the floor next to me, folded his arms and bowed his head, and offered up a soft, heartfelt prayer to his Father in Heaven that my toe would feel better and that I would be able to play with him again soon. Afterwards he looked up at me expectantly and asked if I was feeling better.

That's my boy

That’s my boy

I was.

[1] You hear a lot of noise about bone cancer, gonorrhea, crucifixions etc. but I read this toe fact somewhere on the internet and have just a good feeling in my heart that it’s true.

[2] POSSIBLY. There are lots of terrible things about breaking a toe and I hate to force the reader to choose among them.

[3] There is possibly a Dragonball Z storyline to the contrary.

[4] She didn’t believe that I’d broken my toe and made me sit in my chair until everyone had finished dinner, rather than letting me go to ice that sucker. Theory: even if she’d believed me she still wouldn’t have let me go.

[5] See note 1.

[6] I suspect that this has begun to happen to Ronan, but fortunately for all of us he started off far more crusty than most.


  1. Joshua B. says:

    Its good to see footnotes.

  2. Or in this case, toenotes.

  3. Even with the boo-boo, you have surprisingly good looking feet, Steve. Although I always expected that they would be covered in fur.

  4. MCQ you’re not the first to compliment me on my feet. I appreciate your obvious good taste! I admit that the bi-weekly waxing has paid off.

  5. What a beautiful ending, Steve. The innocence and purity of youth. Oh, that we could hold onto it longer than we generally do.

    Thanks for this post.

  6. .

    I broke my toe. Most painful thing I’VE ever done.

  7. Karen H. says:

    Awww, those are the toes of a real hero.

  8. Nicole I says:

    This is a beautiful post.
    I broke my toe once – it was the first time I ever went to the ER. And the docs agreed that the break was bad enough to need surgery (!!!). The initial break and the recovery hurt as much as the ACL tear of my youth. Worst part… nothing but a ‘rolled my foot in the garden’ for a story.

  9. BethSmash says:

    I once dislocated a toe, but THOUGHT I had broken it. I, mostly stoically, taped it to my other toe so it wouldn’t move and went on with my life, because that’s what you do with broken toes – you acknowledge it and move on – two weeks later it still hurt like crazy, was still swollen and the bruising was horrible. I had just decided that the following monday I’d make an appointment with a doc to see if I did something awful to it, but luckily I slipped when walking down some stairs landed funny and felt it click back in place, by Monday it was definitely getting better, and had mostly stopped hurting. If only I had taken my supposedly broken toe seriously, I could have been out of pain two weeks earlier! Two weeks!

  10. MDearest says:

    Your son’s response to your accident made all the pain and suffering worthwhile. For me at least.

  11. MDearest says:

    (Hope you heal fast.)

  12. I am currently laying in bed with a fractured ankle, my foot stacked up on couch pillows. My story is much better (or stupider, your choice) – I was slacklining (attempting to, anyway) and did not stick my last landing nearly as well as I’d like. My 7yo son has been very solicitous, speaking softly and patting my arm a lot. The silver lining is how willing my children suddenly are to help out around the house, since I can’t do much of anything. I may nurse this for all it’s worth.

  13. That fractured ankle should go well with a bit of fractured grammar. Unless, of course, you’re a hen and you’re laying an egg.

  14. hawkgrrrl says:

    My broken toe felt like a sword was heated in the fires of hell, dipped in red ants, then stuck through my foot. Childbirth was merely uncomfortable. I would have gladly had the epidural for the broken toe.

  15. Jacob, this Evans-worship thing you’ve got going is pushing you over the edge. Did you break your own toe just to background this thing? Really, Evans is gone and is not coming back. Pseudepigrapha may be alright for the ancients, but it just doesn’t look right these days. Get some help.

  16. WVS, next up: a document purporting to be from me that declares Jacob the Holy Roman Emperor.

  17. Sounds redundant.

  18. Lew Craig says:

    That’s not true. The most painful thing in this life is biting into a chocolate chip cookie and finding it’s really a raisin cookie. Raisin cookies are good, but do not hold a candle to the heavenly taste of a chocolate chip cookie. In conclusion, you have a great son!

  19. Lew, correct on both counts!

  20. Also, the paragraph about separation is brilliant. I’m sure I will be using it in a talk at church sometime in the future.

  21. Nobody ever broke a toe from kicking a dragon in the balls.

    This *might* be true (any argument in support is merely an argument from silence) but Viggo Mortensen comes close, breaking his two kicking an Uruk-hai helmet:

  22. oops, meant to say breaking two of his toes.

  23. Mark, I blame the lying/laying mixup on hydrocodone and the fact that I haven’t slept more than three hours straight in the last 52 or so hours. And what hawkgrrrl said – I didn’t cry even half as much when I gave birth. I also found myself wishing for an epidural, a morphine drip, perhaps even a solid cartoon-style knock to the head.

  24. Having experienced the horror of a kidney stone, I’m having a hard time believing that anything, especially a broken toe, could compare.

    First pains were fairly mild. Painful enough that I had trouble standing without leaning up against a wall, but I got through it after a couple of minutes and managed to teach the Young Men and Young Women combined classes. The second surge of intense pain came as soon as we got home from church. Curled up on the floor screaming for mercy. More pain than I had imagined was possible to experience.

  25. Steve, thanks for reminding me of that post. Some classic comments.

  26. it's a series of tubes says:

    Steve, something you still may have the pleasure of looking forward to in life: receiving a painkiller shot directly into the end of a toe because for some reason the ER doc decided against a ring block. I think I scared the 10 year old girl on the next examining table half to death with my inhuman shriek. It was not manly. Or glorious.

  27. Orthopod says:

    Hey, you’re supposed to trim toenails straight across, not shaped like fingernails.

  28. Tim, I hear you. When I was in the ER with my kidney stone, I considered punching the nurse in the face so a security guard would knock me out. I decided against it *only* because I was afraid he’d just taze me and put me in cuffs. i would have sold every earthly possession at that moment for a shot of morphine, crack cocaine, or anything else someone promised would take the pain away.

    Thankfully, since Steve’s pain is clearly so minor compared to our own, we can safely disregard his premise. Which I already forgot.

  29. Yeah, that Morphine is wonderful stuff. It took forever in the ER for them to finally take me seriously and put me on the stuff, but once they did…

    Like being taken straight from Hell to Heaven.

    Unfortunately, I spent the rest of the week on crap painkillers that barely dulled the pain and left me foggy-headed.

  30. While you were taking photos for your foot modeling portfolio, your son was worshiping the one true God. Out of the mouth of babes! Feel better soon…

  31. Usually lurking says:

    I broke my toe waterskiing. I always thought that was a pretty good story.

  32. Southern States Gal says:

    Having had a tib-fib fracture as well a bone in my foot and a fractured wrist – none at the same time — I have concluded at bone injuries hurt like he!!
    I really thought this was going to be an essay on obedience. It was a surprise throughout and very toe-tching.

  33. That pun was almost as painful as the toe, SSG.

  34. Southern States Gal says:

    Typos. All bone injuries. Not at bone. And very “toe-touching.”

  35. J. Stapley says:

    This is splendid, Steve. That last bit sealed the deal.

  36. Melissa DM says:

    Nice to hear your voice, shame about the toe.

  37. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Broke my toe once during a game of Extreme Duck, Duck, Goose with my 6 year-old. When I tell that story I feel as though it makes me look better than someone who broke their toe by simply stubbing it. However, I’m afraid it doesn’t come off that way.

    Just so you know, the current experience is not the most humiliating of your life. That will, rather, be the cumulative humiliation from years of your family teasing you about it. Wait for it…

  38. Turtle, I don’t know what Extreme DDG is but it sounds awesome. Though yes, you’re right that it does not come off as any different from a garden-variety stub. Sorry to rain on your parade.

  39. I broke my big toe twice when I was a kid. It is to this childhood trauma that some attribute my virulent homophobia and lackluster personal hygiene. I didn’t have Little Nell around to comfort me, though.

  40. Adam, there are lots of other circumstances which I’m sure have contributed to your generally repulsive demeanor and ridiculous stances on every conceivable topic. But none are as significant as the toe breakage. It’s amazing you’re not in prison.

  41. My then-two-year-old knocked a heavy machine off a table and onto my toe, squashing and breaking it rather handily. I still consider it one of my finest mothering moments that I was able to resist screaming every expletive and insult I’ve ever heard, and instead just bawled in a puddle on the floor for a solid 10 minutes. While I’m sure the crying was confusing and upsetting to him, at least I avoided the psychological trauma I was tempted to inflict.

  42. Steve E.,
    prison sent me a rejection letter. A nice rejection letter, though–I still treasure it.

  43. This spring I broke a toe and cut a fingertip off (in different incidents).. The former hurt, the latter hurt more.

  44. TMD I’m not sure I believe you.

  45. Try it, for comparison sake. Start with a lawn mower…

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