I stopped chewing my fingernails a few months ago. This might sound like a rather unremarkable detail to be broadcasting into cyberspace but those who have known me for a while will know how significant this is. I’ve been chewing my nails for pretty much as long as I can remember.
I don’t know what youthful anxiety triggered this nervous habit, but at least since elementary school I have been a busy beaver, constantly chewing my nails and the skin around them—sometimes to the point of blood loss and serious discomfort! It is truly a bewildering and filthy habit, but I just couldn’t stop. I remember my mom even tried buying some disgusting chemical concoction to apply to my nails so they would taste gross enough for me to leave them alone. Alas, this was one of the few areas of life in my childhood where I showed determination and persistence. I powered right through the bad taste and kept right on chewing.
I did have periods of minimal improvement—a week or two of self-restraint here and there—but it was always temporary. The nasty habit would always reappear. Overall, I would say that I have been a nail-chewer for almost twenty-five years! Twenty-five years of germ transfer and stinging, stumpy fingers Ugh.
And yet, and yet… I have stopped chewing. I don’t know why or how this happened. One day I just looked down and noticed 7-8 white fingernails and thought, “hmm, don’t see that very often. Let’s keep that going.” And I did. My wife was as mystified as I was—she even said she wasn’t sure she liked me with fingernails because she had never known me to possess them and it seemed strange and unlike me. All of a sudden I find myself inadvertently scratching myself and others because I’m not used to having these little weapons on the ends of my hands. It’s a very strange thing, but I think I can get used to it.
My conquest of the loathsome nail-chewing habit is even more surprising given all that’s transpired in the the last year of all years. Normally, new situations and stresses cause me to chew more, not less. In the last six months I’ve finished off my thesis, uprooted my family, moved to a new city, and started a new job which almost daily presents me with the possibility of being nervous and uncertain. On the face of it, this does not seem like a situation conducive to breaking a life-long habit that has strong ties to nerves and stress. And yet… I have stopped.
So is there a point to this drawn-out tale? A moral to the story? I think there might be. My fingernails now serve as a visible, everyday reminder that change is possible. It is often easy (at least for me) to slide into some fairly deterministic ways of looking at the world. “I could never do that—it’s not at all like me.” “This is just the way I am.” “I’ve never been good at x,y,z—no point in trying now.” And on and on it goes. I’m sure we can all think of ways in which take our own disposition, abilities, interests, and intentions as fixed and prescribed. Unchangeable elements of the “hand we’ve been dealt.” At times, we are suspicious that change might not be a real possibility for us.
But lately, when I look at my fingernails, I am reminded that this is not the case. Change is possible, even if it doesn’t come as frequently or spectacularly as we might like. And on a much larger scale, of course, we know that the Christian faith is predicated on the fact that change is possible. New possibilities are the engine of biblical faith. What God’s redemption story—and the Advent season in particular—tells us is that new turns in the story can and do come. They come in the grand story of history and they come in our own stories as well. Our possibilities are not dictated solely by biology, sociology, or any other “ology” we might think of. Our ends are not determined by our beginnings.
I should come clean. When I said I had stopped chewing my fingernails, I wasn’t being entirely truthful. For some reason, I seem to have mentally given myself the pinky finger on each hand to gnaw away on periodically. I don’t do it much, mind you—just a little bit here and there. But on these two fingers, the nails are noticeably shorter. What deep theological truth might this symbolically represent? Well, I think (tongue in cheek, of course) that it might betray the lack of conviction that sometimes creeps into my mind regarding the truth of the preceding. I know change is possible, but I also have been around long enough to know that it doesn’t come as often as I’d like. And so I retain a bit of skepticism and determinism in the way I think of myself and the world.
The challenge before me—before all of us, really—is to live hopefully, expectantly, and graciously in a world where we are faced with two realities: 1) we enter a world and a particular context which is not of our choosing. We are all dealt a particular hand (biologically, sociologically, spiritually, etc) and we must “play” this hand to the best of our abilities in a world where the change we seek is difficult and sporadic; and 2) we play our hands in a world that has been, is being, and will be transformed by a God of hope and new possibilities. Either one of these realities may seem more prominent at various points in our lives, but the Christian hope is that both are real—indeed, that the reality of a world changed and transformed by grace will one day be the final reality within which all of our individual stories will find their place.