A Meditation on Bitten Nails (journal entry, March 2011)
There is a little bottle of shining, translucent green fluid, sitting on my nightstand. It’s small and sparkling, with a slim brush in its lid. It could be a perfumed enchantment fit to break a princess’ spell, or a poison as bitter and potent as any evil fairy ever sprinkled on an apple. In fact, it’s neither – or perhaps a bit of both. It’s anti-nail-biting ‘polish’.
I have bitten my nails since I was a child, and have never successfully broken the habit for very long. But the other day that desire was given new urgency by seeing my daughter with her fingers at her mouth, beginning to nibble… and since I believe it’s easier to stop a bad habit before it starts, than try to break it afterwards, I sat down for a talk with her. We promised each other that we would both try not to bite our nails; she agreed that she didn’t want to begin, and I agreed that I needed to set the example. So to help us remember, I bought the little bottle of anti-nail-biting polish – actually merely a very bitter fluid that dries swiftly on the tip of the nail and the surrounding skin – and carefully stroked it on all our fingers.
It’s a very effective deterrent/reminder…bitter as if it were distilled from rotten grapefruit peels, church coffee, and ancient endive leaves, with a dash of vengeful tears and Mithriditian venom thrown in…and it looks the part, with its transparent bluish-green colour sparkling wickedly in the light. But it works, and for the last week the Kitkat and I have been keeping our hands away from our mouths, rewarded by seeing our nails beginning to grow.
Yesterday, though, we discovered a strange side effect. I absently licked my lips after a drink of water, and my tongue was immediately attacked by that same bitter taste. Puzzled, I tried again; yes, the distinctive repellent bite of the fluid, even though I hadn’t put my fingers to my mouth. Kitkat reported the same thing, upon being asked. I went and rinsed out my mouth, brushed my teeth and scrubbed my poor tongue, then washed my lips and chin carefully. Could it be, I theorized, that this bitter substance was so potent that it had been absorbed at the molecular level and then exuded again in my skin? I tried an experiment to test my theory; I touched my clean tongue to the inside of my wrist. Now, while I’m sure you don’t usually go around licking yourself like a cat, you can probably make a good guess as to how your own skin might smell and taste – a sort of neutral flavour, perhaps a bit soapy in the morning, or slightly salty later on in the day? But again I pulled my head back with that same bitter taste in my mouth. I tried one more test, after rinsing my mouth again – I called K over and kissed the back of her neck. Yes, again, sourness fairly seeping from her normally sweet skin!
It was then that the analogy struck me, powerfully. My little vial of bright green fluid was very like the way sin works in our lives. Clear, attractive to look at as it sparkled on my nightstand under my reading lamp, it was nonetheless a bitter ‘poison’. Though I had barely dipped the tips of my fingers in the substance, it had seeped through my entire body – coming out over my pulse points, lying over my heart, even embittering my lips and my tongue! Sin works the same way. We think we can afford some little peccadillos, some minor transgressions, some compromise with our conscience – that we can just ‘dabble our fingertips’ in sin and come away with no more penalty than a handwashing later. Like Pilate, we call for water and cleanse our hands – but meanwhile the consequences of our decision has travelled through our entire body and life. The bitterness of sin will exude over our whole being, beating with our pulse, lying on our lips, tainting the relationships we have with others.
Now, I’m thankful to my bitter potion; it’s helping me break an old, bad habit, and encouraging my daughter not to begin. But every time I glance at that sparkling green bottle, I can be reminded not to make even the smallest compromises with sin – not so much as a nails’breadth.