04/19/2012 06:16 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

What Would You Give Your Right Arm For?

It's been a while since I've heard anyone use the phrase "I'd give my right arm" for something. That phrase is one of those flippant remarks people make when they really, really want something. I'm not sure where this phrase comes from but, because most people are right-handed, if you're going to give your right arm for something, that means you really, really want it and are willing to sacrifice to get it. Of course, no one ever expects you to actually give up your right arm.

Aron Ralston didn't technically give up his right arm; he gave up his right hand. He's the guy who was hiking in Utah when his hand became trapped by an 800-pound boulder. After struggling to free himself for more than five days, he decided to give his right hand for survival. Ralston survived and wrote a book about his experience, which became the movie 127 Hours starring James Franco. The movie's now out on DVD. The promo material calls what Ralston went through a "remarkable adventure." I suppose the word "adventure" could fit here, but that's a stretch for me. Going to Disneyland for the first time is an adventure; having to cut off your own hand to keep on living seems more like a trial, an ordeal or a nightmare.

Technically, Jonathan Metz didn't give his right arm either; he gave his left. Jonathan wasn't hiking in some wilderness canyon, he was fixing the furnace in his basement. Trying to clean the heating vents in his furnace boiler, Metz dropped a tool. Naturally, he reached his arm in farther to fish it out. He didn't snag the tool. Instead, it was his arm that got hooked by the boiler. After unsuccessfully calling for help and beginning to smell infection taking hold, Metz decided the only thing to do to save his life was to cut off his arm. The police found him in his basement after friends became concerned when he didn't show up for work and a softball game. Doctors told him detaching his left arm kept the infection from spreading and saved his life.

I don't usually dwell on these kinds of grisly stories, but I remembered them and that phrase, "I'd give my right arm," the other day when I saw another story. It was about a 17-year-old in China. He wasn't willing to give up his right arm but he was willing to give up his kidney (the story didn't say if it was his left or right kidney). So, what did this 17-year-old really, really want that was worth the loss of a body part? It was an iPhone and an iPad.

As I thought of Ralston in Utah, Metz in Connecticut and the unnamed 17-year-old in China, I couldn't help wondering at each one's definition of the word "survival." Giving up a part of your body is an extreme measure. Ralston and Metz did so in order to survive. What was the Chinese teen thinking? Has an iPhone and an iPad become synonymous with "life"?

Maybe "life" is too drastic a word. This teenager was willing to give up something he thought he really didn't need in order to obtain something he thought he really, really did need. Maybe teenagers are just like that. After all, according to a recent study, 53 percent of young people (age 16-22) said they'd rather give up their sense of smell than their social networks, the very thing you access over iPhones and iPads. At this point, it's smell and kidneys. How long before they're willing to give right arms?

All of this got me to thinking about my own definition of "survival" and what things of value I've been willing to give up for my use of technology. I haven't given up hands or arms or kidneys, but I have given up valuable things. So, in some ways, my answer is no less disturbing than theirs.