Fingernails: Redefining Your Relationship with Dirt.


Culture Fuel From the Trail series

This series of posts is inspired by our recent 6-day section hike of the Appalachian Trail, which you can read more about here. Each of these posts offers an insight from our experience on the trail that applies to life and leadership. Enjoy!

“Dirty fingernails is the perfect symbol for the rude interruption of our illusion of control...and the perfect invitation to dispense with our need for it.”

At the end of day two on the trail, we cleared Hogpen Gap and found a nicely sheltered campsite just east of the trail alongside a pretty creek. Figured it was time to wash some of the trail off my body, so I found myself standing in the middle of the ice-cold creek, naked, juggling soap and clothes and cursing mildly under my breath. [I hereby disclaim any responsibility for damage caused by disturbing mental images.] It was the first, and last, time I attempted bathing on the trail. Afterwards, I contented myself with sponge baths and lots of deodorant! Regardless, from day two on, one thing was never clean again, and that was my fingernails.

I do not like dirt. My mom tells me that, even as a child I would cry until she wiped off my messy hands. I'm sure there is a name for this dysfunction somewhere. But the interesting thing was that, day by day, I cared less and less. Backpacking along the AT has a way of sifting out what really matters from what doesn't. And here's what I took away from that experience:

  1. Mess is not inherently bad. Yes, messiness can be the result of laziness or ineptitude...but at other times, mess is merely the symptom of our humanity. And sometimes it is important to be reminded of our limitations and weaknesses lest we grow a god-complex. Mess can be a highly-grounding experience.
  2. Mess challenges our illusion of control. Speaking of god-complexes, a disproportionate amount of our work activities consists of attempting to control ourselves, control other people, and control the environment we live and work in. This is sometimes misdirected. Mission first, not neatness.
  3. Mess clarifies our priorities. When order becomes king, we end up with a "tail-wagging-the-dog" scenario. On the trail, my focus was safety, shelter, food, and progress; fingernails were not a high priority. In our non-trail lives, let's keep first things first.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to glorify mess. My goal is simply to acknowledge that, within our carefully manicured worlds, we remain fairly fragile beings. And rather than making it our mission to eradicate mess, we can learn from it and learn to see the "treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Corinthians 4:7) and redefine our relationship with dirt.

Posted on June 4, 2014 .