Lessons from a Swiss Army knife

by Nancy Linenkugel


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I am dusting the top of my home desk and picking up items for the dust cloth to sweep under when I realize I'm holding my Swiss Army knife. It's the real thing — the smallest model made — and I remember exactly when I got it.  

One of the doctors on the medical staff at the hospital where I was the CEO stopped in to my office during the Christmas holidays and handed me a tiny box with the greeting, "I hope you like this and find it useful; I'm giving this to lots of folks for Christmas this year because I just want to share what I think is a fantastic item." 

I had opened the little box and the shiny red mini Swiss Army knife looked back at me, ready to take on as-yet unknown tasks. I knew right away what the gift was, and the doctor was pleased that I liked it. Indeed, his gift brought me closer to my dad, who had a foldable knife in his pocket at all times; now I had a pocket knife, too.   

"This is small but very mighty and has several features," said the doctor, as he demonstrated how to open the various tools. "Don't miss the scissors, the tweezers or the toothpick," he added. I thanked him and recall joking, "Can you even do surgery with this?"  

He responded, "Regretfully, no, I didn't have this with me when I was camping at a remote Canadian spot last summer when a colleague got a gash in his foot. We were too far from medical help so I sutured his foot using a fish hook and some thin line." 

Seeing me cringe in an ooh-that-must-have-hurt expression, he quickly went on, "But that was just to stop the bleeding; I applied a makeshift bandage and the next day we flew home where he received real medical attention. All turned out well." 

How vividly that conversation came back to me as I held the knife. When was that now? Hmmm, I guess it was around 1990, so that means I've had this little knife for almost 30 years. That doctor is now in heaven, and I've long moved on to other ministries; however, I've kept the knife all that time somewhere in or on my ministry desk. At first it was in the pencil drawer in my hospital desk, and now it's on my home desk. 

The name comes from the knife's official title, Schweizer Offiziersmesser (the Swiss officer's knife), but those unfamiliar with that language dubbed it the "Swiss Army knife." The knife is a work of art for excellence in design and is displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art as well as in the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich, Germany. 

Do you think it's amazing that I can still find my little knife? It isn't very big, at just over 2 inches long, so it's easily overlooked or misplaced. But you don't overlook why you have it in the first place. Deep down I want to be a Swiss Army knife. The design is ingenious, and the various tools make for great versatility. While a pocket knife generally has one main blade and sometimes a second smaller blade, the Swiss Army knife has that plus much more. Soldiers needed several tools, including a screwdriver for the rifle, a can opener and a spear point blade, so the manufacturer came to the rescue with an all-purpose knife having compact and engineered tools onboard as part of the knife itself. 

Even my own mini version is impressive with five tools designed into a 2-inch implement: a main blade, a nail file, scissors, tweezers and a tooth pick.

While there are several much larger Swiss army knife models available, I've given this tiny knife a workout over the years. I've opened countless FedEx packages and boxes using the main blade, and I've used it as a letter opener.  I've also used the knife blade to make carry openings on the sides of every box I've owned. I've retrieved jammed paper in a printer with the tweezers. I've cut off product tags using the scissors—the kind that your fingers alone can't rip. I've used the nail file to bevel off a craft project. I've used the toothpick for just that purpose. 

I've kept this knife for two main reasons: 1) to have it handy when I need those tools and 2) to serve as a symbol of efficiency, versatility and flexibility for me. Yes, I repeat: I want to be a Swiss Army knife in my life and ministry. 

Sometimes I need to be a main blade — cutting one of my ideas or a direction that doesn't catch on; 

Sometimes I need to be a nail file — smoothing rough places to refine my ideas and get them to work;   

Sometimes I need to be a scissors — simply to be useful when I or others need that most;  

Sometimes I need to be tweezers — to remove one of my ideas or concepts that isn't working; 

And sometimes I need to be a toothpick — bringing a group along to get my point. 

If you own one of these knives, do you know how to determine if it's a real one or a knock-off? There are two ways. First, on a real Swiss Army knife the tools snap back into place. And second, there is a Victorinox shield on the big blade with the words, "Victorinox Swiss Made." My tiny knife passes muster. 

Thank you, Victorinox and Wenger Companies. I'm happy to be called a Swiss Army knife since that's a popular metaphor for usefulness and adaptability.  

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati.]