In early December of last year I made a spontaneous and uniformed decision – to stop biting my nails. I can’t say that the follow-through on this has been easy, but somehow, miraculously, for the past six months I’ve been white-knuckling it through. The vanity of having them painted on a regular basis has helped. Having a wedding to look pretty for helped. Having a stubborn will to succeed helped. But in the end, it wasn’t enough.
Technically I didn’t bite my nail off. I just chewed on it until it became soft, brittle, and jagged enough that I couldn’t help but pick at it. I lost the nail and nearly lost all self-control with the other nine.
So Friday evening I went to what is sadly too often my last resort. I prayed. I asked God for help. And I immediately got an answer. (I always know it’s God when the answer is short and sweet; if it’s my own head committee voices, there’s usually a dissertation or two going on at competing levels of volume and convoluted justification. God, on the other hand, is simple.) He said, “Cut them.”
Seriously, God? You mean to tell me that after more than six months of growing and maintaining these beauties, you want me to WHAT?!?!?!
“You can’t bite them if you cut them.”
So that’s what I did. My nails are now equally short, no tempting, jagged edges to pick at or nibble on. I can honestly say that my Higher Power’s suggestion worked. I cannot honestly say that I like it. It kind of feels like six months of effort has been wasted.
This Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah is one of my favorite scripture passages. On this Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, it speaks of being called for a purpose from before our births. There’s one line, however, that I never noticed before. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gone through a marriage that has ended in separation and a divorce that is all but final, that now, at this point in my life I would notice it for the first time:
“Though I thought I had toiled in vain and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength . . .”
No other words could more accurately describe the feelings I’ve often had in recent weeks. That’s probably why I’ve taken a hiatus from writing. Life got very “real” for me this spring.
My marriage, failed as it is, taught me some wonderfully valuable lessons about myself and relationships, especially romantic ones, that I might never have learned any other way. It made my life so unbearable that I sought help for myself and opened a door to an amazing new life. Discerning the end of my marriage and following through on it was no picnic. It was, indeed, “toil” motivated by the firm hope that I would be better for it.
Don’t get me wrong – I am better for the decision I made; a fact to which many of my long-time friends and family members can attest. They know what I was like before, during and after, and they tell me daily how proud they are, how amazed they are at the transformation. That said, I feel like I’m back at square one. See, I got married in part because I wanted to get off the self-destructive path I found myself walking, and marriage seemed like a pretty solid change of course. Apparently it was only a detour, one that has dumped me back at the very same spot I was thirteen years ago, much like one of those cloverleaf exit ramps that keep you driving in circles until you finally commit to driving on that new perpendicular road.
I am facing many of the same temptations I forestalled. This time, however, I get to make different choices.
If I find myself back at ground zero with short nails, it is not because I have toiled in vain or I haven’t learned my lesson. My spiritual mentor says that in order to have a testimony, you must first have a test. Perhaps this season of my life is meant for me to see just what I’ve learned and also to see where my real weaknesses lie.
I have written before about my experiences in high school chemistry class. I failed my quizzes miserably. I didn’t do much better on my tests. But on the midterm and final exams, I aced it. My successes and failures on the early tests showed me where to put my effort in order to achieve maximum results.
There is a second part to that verse from Isaiah. “Yet my reward is with the Lord, my recompense is with my God.” If I want to be rewarded for my toil, I have only to step away from my own will power and step toward my Higher Power; the Prodigal Son story teaches me that I need only take one or two steps and my Father will run and leap the rest of the way toward me with the purple cloak, sandals and rings for my short-nailed fingers. I know from experience that my will power alone is not enough to stop me from biting my nails or engaging in the old behaviors from which I used marriage as a temporary and ineffective escape. Toiling and spending my strength is not in vain, however. I believe that if I put forth my best effort, God will come through on relieving me from nail biting and other vices.
My best effort alone is not enough. Sometimes I may literally need to cut off my nails or unhealthy relationships to avoid temptation, if that’s what it takes. I’m grateful for the test I’m in right now because it is revealing to me the areas in which I need serious tutoring. And apparently my God thinks I need lots of practice, because the pop quizzes keep coming.
“I will make you a light to the nations,” Isaiah says. I’d settle for being a light to my family and children and friends, if my redemption and restoration could be used that way. Even my mistakes can be useful to God if they help teach someone else. God, help me. God, thank you. God, use me. Make me a polished arrow and hide me in your quiver.