I don’t get manicures or pedicures. Even for special occasions like weddings, including my own. The last time I polished my nails I was 14. It is just something that I have no interest in, that would be a colossal waste of time and money. Unable to keep myself from the sin of thinking about how I am oh-so-superior to others, I admit that at times I have been an eensy weensy bit judgmental about the time, energy and money that other women apparently spend on fingernails and toenails.
I was having a conversation some years ago with a woman who I knew was in severe financial difficulty at the time. She had been getting food for her family at a food pantry, and she mentioned something about going to get a pedicure. Incredulous, I asked how much that cost. “Only $10!” she replied. I managed to bite my tongue and NOT mention that I thought she might have better things to spend that money on. Silently in my mind, though, I immediately judged her, and harshly condemned her.
Now, if she had said that she had bought a book for $10, not only would I not have judged her, I would have approved of this expense in that place where I decide what actions done by other people are worthy of my approval or condemnation. Never mind that the city where we live has an excellent public library system, and it’s really not necessary to spend money on books. Even if she had paid extra money for a new hardcover, rather than buy a used book or wait for the paperback to come out, I would not have judged her harshly for that expenditure. Somehow, in my closed little viewpoint and the complex of self-righteous judgmentalism that goes with it, buying a book is inherently good and getting a pedicure is wasteful.
But, as always, my judgmentalism is unfair, lacking in compassion, and damaging. There are things about this woman’s life situation and the pedicure that I did not consider as I condemned her. Being impoverished is horrible. It is stressful, constantly scary, and makes the day-to-day living of life exponentially harder and more demanding. It is physically and mentally draining. And, perhaps worst of all, it is demeaning, degrading and dehumanizing. Our culture (like so many others through the ages) views and treats poor people as being less than other people – less worthy, less good, less moral or hardworking or smart, less human. This is conveyed on a daily basis, heaped upon poor people in a barrage of verbal and non-verbal insults, messages and mistreatments, both subtle and blatant, that wealthier people simply are not subjected to.
The experience of getting food at a food pantry is hardly enjoyable, and usually is pretty demeaning. The waiting in line, the shabby appearance of the place, the lack of choice in what you get to eat, the condescending treatment and shallow, self-serving pity of the people who work and volunteer there all adds up to an experience that leaves one feeling completely downtrodden, even with the bag of food in your hands. Until you’ve been one of “those people” in the line for food, there is no way to know how hard, how degrading, how utterly humiliating it can be. Over and over again, every day, a poor person is put down and told, in various ways, “you are nothing.”
And then there is the $10 pedicure. For a few minutes, you get to be treated like somebody special, somebody worthy of care and attention. You get to take a brief respite from the anxiety and mistreatment, from the relentless physical, mental and spiritual assault of poverty, from the day-in, day-out grinding hardship of a life of scarcity. When I think of the pedicure like this, I realize that perhaps it’s not just about the toenails or the vanity of appearance. When I think of the pedicure as a contrast to everything else that this woman experienced in her day, I am able to understand why it might be a worthwhile thing for her, an act of self-care rather than vanity - perhaps even an act of preservation of dignity, of defiantly asserting one’s worthiness of care despite everything. It makes some sense to me why it would be worth the $10, why one might spend time and money on it even when those are very scarce. I am able to have a little more compassion, and be less judgmental and condemning. And that is always, always a good thing. That is always, always the beginning of a shift into more loving relationship with God and neighbor, which is the whole point of everything.
OK, so I still don’t totally understand the manicure and pedicure thing, and I still think books are more important, to be honest. This probably won’t change. But what I hope WILL change is my self-righteous judgmentalism, my lack of compassion. It never helps anything, never works for good in my soul, in the relationship, or in the world. Maybe next time someone is talking to me about what they did with their day, I won’t be so quick to condemn them in my mind because of some little random thing. Maybe I won’t be so hasty to harden and close my heart, to cut off open listening and shut them out from my realm of care. Maybe I’ll just be able to meet them where they’re at, like Jesus did with the people he encountered. Maybe I’ll just be able to see a fellow human being who, like me and you, is a total mess and yet worthy of compassion and genuine care. Maybe I’ll stop obsessing over toenails. Rather than worrying about the little hard things on the ends of other people’s toes, I’ll turn my concern to the hard parts of my heart.