Rhonda Mawhood Lee: What would it be? Dissatisfaction or gratitude?

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An Episcopal priest learns a valuable lesson from a run-in with a smartphone. The choice is yours every moment of every day: focus on lack or appreciate the abundance.

For years, I had put off getting a smartphone. Though I sometimes felt like the only middle-class American under 65 with a flip phone, I simply did not want to be tied to that more-powerful technological leash. But then I took a job that required me to check email on the road, and joined the smartphone-wielding masses.

The day I bought my iPhone, I had to admit: That little electronic brick was beautiful. Sleek and shiny, it promised to make my life easier.

But 24 hours later, I was ready to throw it through a window. My iPhone wouldn’t save my contacts. For some reason that I couldn’t fathom and Apple user forums couldn’t explain, the names and numbers I entered one minute disappeared the next.

A phone without contacts wasn’t going to keep me in touch with anyone. And my attempts to diagnose the problem were driving me out of my mind.

I know. There’s a hashtag for this: #firstworldproblems. But as trivial as it was — and as embarrassed as I am to admit it — my “first-world problem” was ruining my day.

Fortunately, on the morning my iPhone went on strike, a neighbor’s kindness pulled me out of my self-absorbed funk.

Fuming about how I could possibly fit a visit to the AT&T store into my schedule, I pulled into my hairdresser’s on the way to work. My bangs, along with so much else, were getting on my nerves. It was time for a trim.

Again: #firstworldproblems. #whitewhine.

I didn’t have an appointment, but a trim takes five minutes. My hairdresser, Mark, provides this service free between haircuts. Over the 20 years he’s been cutting my hair, I’ve learned that he’s not just a generous soul. He doesn’t want clients taking matters into their own hands, butchering their hair and then telling everyone they go to his shop. Free bang trims prevent that kind of bad publicity.

Mark wasn’t available, but his colleague Jeff ushered me to a chair.

“How’s your morning going?” he asked.

“Honestly, not great,” I answered.

As I opened my mouth to tell him about my run-in with technology, I remembered that two of his cousins had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. I decided not to go into details. Instead, I poured out an unplanned confession, something that had only just then occurred to me.

“I’m just grumpy today. I’m going through a transition at work, and I think it’s making me anxious.”

“Well, we’ll see if we can’t get your bangs the way you want them, at least.” He went to work, combing and snipping.

My bangs trimmed to our mutual satisfaction, Jeff asked, “May I style you up a little?” As I hesitated, he added, “It’s a hot, humid day out there. Maybe I can get you ready for it.”

“Sure,” I agreed.

As Jeff sprayed, blow-dried and brushed, I had a sudden, clear realization. I could stay irritated and let trivial frustrations cloud the rest of my day. Or I could let go of them and relax into Jeff’s skilled, caring hands. It was up to me whether I accepted the gift he had offered.

So what would it be?

Dissatisfaction or gratitude?

Ruin my day over a smartphone or allow a kind person to give the day a fresh start?

Focus on what I lacked or appreciate the abundance in front of me?

The choice was mine. It’s always mine. It’s yours, too. It’s everyone’s. Moment after moment, every day.

That morning, I chose to settle into Jeff’s chair. For the 10 minutes it took to style my hair, I enjoyed the human connection he forged between us, and I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving for him. I knew Jeff wasn’t looking for a tip, but I gave him one. It was enough, if he wanted, to buy coffee or a beer after work with a friend — creating another shared moment of simple pleasure.

I went into the salon that morning for a bang trim and came out with an attitude adjustment. The impact of my impromptu morning styling rippled outward, far beyond one hairdresser’s chair.

The gratitude for Jeff and his kindness shaped my interactions with everyone with whom I met that day. The young mother discerning a career change that would allow her to spend time with her family while offering her gifts of patience and encouragement and her vocation for teaching to a wider circle. The 90-year-old woman who can no longer leave her home, whose ministry is now to pray daily for the world. My parish colleagues, whom I would soon leave to answer a new call, whom I already missed and to whom I made sure to express my appreciation that very day.

That morning, I had faced my own frailty, if only in a small way. Anxious about upcoming changes at work, I had sought control of trivialities: my iPhone and my hair. But when I acknowledged my fear and accepted help, the whole world, and my sense of possibility, changed.

Anxiety, followed by a desperate grasping to control something, anything, no matter how small — it’s a cycle that everyone experiences at one time or another.

So does the church. Budget goals seem unattainable, so staff members get squeezed. Ministries, each with too few participants, compete for the resources they all need to do the Lord’s work. Parishes focus on helping the poor outside their walls, oblivious to church members who are afraid or ashamed to admit that they can no longer pay their mortgages and don’t know where to turn.

In all these situations, confession — of our fears and our needs — and compassion — for each other and ourselves — could be the first steps toward a new understanding of the abundance we might enjoy together.

The afternoon after Jeff styled my hair, I finally figured out how to get my iPhone to accept my contacts: reboot it. The machine, like me, had needed to start over. And one man’s generosity had given me the space I needed to realize that.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership, November 20, 2018

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