January 12, 2006

Tipping the Scales

1501 page22 cap SAT IN THE CHAIR AT THE SMALL NAIL salon, about as comfortable as a fish thrown up on the shore. ?Would you like tips?? the technician questioned.

?Pardon?? I asked. ?Tips?? he tried again.

?I don?t know,? I responded. ?I?ve never done fingernails before.?

Exasperated, he gestured toward a chair in the tiny waiting area. ?Sit there,? he said. Fifteen minutes later he approached the chair. ?Would you like tips?? he questioned.

?I really don?t know,? I tried again. ?I mean, what is the difference between tips or no tips? What are the implications here??

?Sit there,? he gestured, indicating the working area.

For the next 25 minutes he said nothing, hunching over my hands using strange-smelling things, tools both electric and simple, buffs and powders and liquids and yes, tips. Twenty dollars later I emerged from ABC Nails with perfectly symmetrical pure-white crescents at the end of each finger, pearly pink nail beds glistening with tough, flawless resin.

I admired my hands during the drive home, albeit wondering whether real life might collide with my newly found extravagance. Would I be able to type, garden, paint without fear of despoiling the elegance? I pushed the thoughts aside, pleased that I had done one more thing in preparation for being a guest at the upcoming wedding of a family member.

One week later, the wedding over, my thoughts once again went to my fingernails. What did one do, I mused, following such an elaborate undertaking? Simply put, I was faced with a choice. I would have to keep up the look or go back to ordinary, clipper-job, hastily snipped nails. How much would it cost to maintain? I wondered. How often would I have to visit ABC Nails? What kind of an investment were we talking here--timewise, moneywise? And how long before I would have to decide?

Decisions, Decisions
The grace period came screeching to a halt when the inevitable happened three days later. Exiting my car, I thrust my hand onto the door handle and heard a crunch. Minus one nail, I hurried into work. All day long I attempted to hide the obvious. One nail down, it was pretty evident that the other nine did not just grow into place as pure-white crescents.

1501 page22Surveying the damage, I noticed that the clock had been ticking on all 10 digits anyway. Slowly, the bed of resin was moving upward with the growth of the nails underneath, revealing an ordinary flat, pale bed. Cinderella?s day at the ball was approaching midnight. The coach was about to turn to a pumpkin, the dress to become rags.

A short investigation revealed that I was looking at a $12 maintenance job every couple of weeks, and a full-fledged $20 process every four, six if I stretched it. As trivial as this may seem, I struggled with what, for me, proved to be a moral issue. As one employed in a professional career, it would be nice to resolve the nail issue once and for all, I reasoned. Pay the money. Keep up the image. Dispense with clippers, surrender my hands to the work of experts, flash the polished look with pride. On a deeper level, however, I had a hard time justifying the half hour in that chair, the $30-plus for something so totally unnecessary.

As I wrestled with such thoughts, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few quick items. In front of me a worn-looking woman placed a few staples on the belt. A carton of orange juice. A box of plain cereal. A quart of milk. A package of hamburger. The total order amounted to $34.

Producing a charge card, the woman tried in vain to summon her resources. Each time she slid the card, the cashier shook her head in disgust. After the third try, her exhausted bank account became evident. Leaving the cart where it was, she lowered her head and left the store.

?Why do they do that?? the cashier spoke to me. ?Don?t these people know they don?t have any money??

I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Why hadn?t I reacted quickly, paid for the woman?s groceries? ?I feel bad,? I said. ?I should have helped her out.?

?It?s her own fault,? the cashier insisted. ?She should have checked her account before coming in.?

I left the store, the nail issue resolved. I could not bring myself to start a $30-plus a month obligation when three tens amounted to much-needed milk, eggs, bread, and cereal for another.

Decision made, I began the laborious process of attempting to remove my short-lived glory. After soaking and scraping and prying and clipping, I now sport plain hands with a few stubborn dried remains of my bygone look.

Life After a Manicure
I write this article neither to condemn those with elegant nails nor to pat myself on the back for moving beyond pride in one small area of my life. Rather, I share my tale with several points that I hope extend beyond a manicure.

First, it is a freeing experience to shed reliance on appearance and material things. Decision made, I felt a sense of relief with each layer that soaked off, each bit of glue that wiped away. I was functional again, free to delve into play-dough with kids, finger-paint, play four square--all without the burden of having to preserve that for which I had expended money. There is something to be said for old cars whose doors can be dinged without eliciting anger, hand-me-downs that can be easily replaced when torn, furniture that can hold up without fuss when toddlers come to visit.

Second, no matter where we are on the continuum of wealth and personal indulgence, there will always be those ahead of us as well as those behind us. Our challenge is to refrain from judging those whose material things outweigh our own, while remaining sensitive to those whose needs exceed ours. Stuck within our own way of living, we unconsciously assume that what we have and what we are are ?normal.? Viewing the luxury of those whose station in life is above our own, we congratulate ourselves on our lack of pride and self-indulgence, or secretly envy their holdings and work to emulate their lifestyle to validate our own existence. Those on the other end of the continuum we avoid, forget about, or assign blame. After all, these people could have it all too if they would only try harder. My prayer is that I will not become numb to the needs of others, while resisting the urge to judge those whose holdings and personal expenditures exceed my own.

Third, whatever our station in life, unless we actively seek to develop a grateful attitude for what we have and root out feelings of dissatisfaction, we are in danger of forfeiting our ability to grow in Christ. Someone has summed up the difference between the social classes by relating their attitude toward food: the poor hope there will be enough, the middle class hope that it will taste good, and the wealthy hope that it will be attractively presented. No matter how far from poverty we get, we are still in danger of continually refining our expectations so that our standard is never met, our contentment always an arm?s length away.

The biggest eye-opener for me over my dilemma with something as trite as fingernails came when I turned on the evening news last night. A fire had devastated a school in India, leaving countless children dead and others terribly wounded. As the camera swept through the hospital wing over those poor charred bodies, I thought of the pain I had felt once as a child when I pushed the garbage can cover down on top of an incinerator and blistered the edge of my fingertips. So minor compared to the sufferings of those blackened shells of human life. Yet I remembered the pain, the swift air hitting the burns with no mercy. And here, at the same moment while I stood in my kitchen unloading the dishwasher, putting away silverware, real children were in real, unimaginable pain, trapped in a terror of agony.

The thought haunts me still. While I agonize over chipped nails and dinged doors and material evidence that my home is less than perfect, children cry in their beds from hunger, the poor are abused, the whole of human suffering plays out on this planet. How have we become so used to our own petty issues, so anesthetized to the pain that rips and tears outside our comfortable circle of living?

What God Really Wants
I understand now why Christ has promised to return to this earth when His character is perfectly reproduced in His people. Christ is not longing for the day when upright people chew each bite of food 28 times, drink eight glasses of water, get lots of exercise, and hold daily devotions so that He can reward them with His coming. It is not hyper-awareness of our own needs that He wants. It is a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of this earth that will shake our complacency and cause us no rest day and night as we pray for Him to come to relieve the pain that sin has inflicted upon our planet.

Lord, take the scales of self-absorption from my eyes that I might truly tune in to the needs of others, and long for Your quick return.

Sandra Doran is an associate superintendent of education of the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and for many years authored a monthly column for the Adventist Review.