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A Parable of Self Sufficiency and  Vulnerability

“Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees'” (Luke 21:29)

I step up to check my bag at the curbside valet stand. The early December morning is strangely warm and breezy. The clouds are just starting to pink up. I reach for my phone. It’s not in my pocket. Is it in my purse? No. Maybe my backpack? No. I check every pocket again. Nothing.

Rats!

I hand over my suitcase to the valet. I ask him for a new boarding pass. Mine is stored conveniently on my phone. Which I don’t have. I tell the smiling man: “I think I left my phone in my car or on the shuttle van from the parking service.” He kindly offers to lend me his phone. I don’t know the number. It is stored – where else? In my phone. The valet points out a bank of phones inside the terminal.

Retracing my steps of the morning mentally, I know the cell phone must be either in my car or on the shuttle. I’m about to be away from home for six days. I do not want to think about the days ahead without my phone.

As I search for a landline in the airport terminal, I’m thinking through my options. (Disappointingly, the phone bank turns out to be only direct lines to hotels.) Overnight shipping? Buying a temporary phone? What will I do?

Fortunately I’m pretty obsessed about getting to the airport early, to allow time for such emergencies. I reach for my phone to check the time. Not there. Glad I still wear a watch. While I’m congratulating myself about my planning ahead and arriving early, and remembering to put on my watch, I realize there is no phone in this airport this side of security. I feel bereft. I can’t call anyone to help me.

Then finally I hit on a brilliant solution.

I return to the drop off point out front. I catch up to the next shuttle from my parking service, where I parked my car less than 15 minutes ago.

When I explain my situation, the driver calls in the problem on his walkie-talkie. The search lasts less than three minutes. They have it. I don’t know yet if it was on the shuttle or in my car. The driver tells them – again so kindly because people actually do like to help someone in need – that I will be waiting right here at this drop-off point to meet the shuttle and get my phone.

He drives away and I practice breathing in the soft morning and memorizing the colors of the pre-dawn clouds, even as I try not to breath in the second-hand smoke. I watch the cleaning staff wipe down trashcans. Who knew that someone actually washed them each day? Well, of course they do. That’s why they look so clean. Not because Nashvillians aren’t just as sloppy as any other group of people on earth, but because the airport pays someone to come along and clean up after us. The service workers, shuttle drivers, valet personnel, security workers . . . they each greet each other in quiet tones, subtle waves, asides followed by chuckles. They know each other. Work together each day. Have inside jokes. But most mornings I walk right by them like they don’t exist. Standing quietly and watching I’m assaulted by my hardheartedness, overthrown by my insensitivities, wishing Anne Lamott were here to say something funny to cheer me up. Where is my twitter account? What funny thing has she written this morning? Oh yeah, I don’t have a phone.

While I’m standing there taking in each detail of the morning I feel myself mentally reach for my phone over and over. I’ll take a picture of the sunrise. Nope. I’ll check email. Nope. I’ll post something funny and self-deprecating about this on fb or twitter.

Nope.

It’s like crack and I’m addicted. The creeping dependence on my electronic devices is disturbing. On one hand, my work literally would not be possible without them. On the other hand, my electronic gadgets shore up my sense of self-sufficiency, and privatize my needs, and narrow my connections with others. I have endless possibilities for connecting with family, students, colleagues and friends the world over. Yet I am easily distracted and self-involved and miss the very important people right in front of me.

Six minutes have passed. The same driver who dropped me off pulls up to the curb. I described him earlier to the second driver as the “one who is Hispanic” in an effort to identify which shuttle I was on, and not knowing this man’s name.

This is embarrassing for lots of reasons. I gave him a tip earlier. Smiled at him. I’ve spoken ‘good morning’ and ‘hello’ dozens of times to the man over the last few years. He is always kind and professional. And he has a ready smile. And yet I have no clue. I am the queen of clueless.

I thank him for my phone. I give him another slightly larger tip for his trouble, and I say, “Thank you so much. What a relief. And I’m really sorry, but I don’t know your name.”

“My name? I’m Joey. Well, my real name is Habib, but I say Joey. To make it easier for people.”

“Well, Joey, Habib, thank you. I’m so grateful for your help this morning. I hope you have a really fine day.”

As I walk toward the terminal I’m relieved and disgusted at once. I curse the regimes of relationality that keep power in its proper places and feed the myth of self-sufficiency, and divide human against human in the small violences of everyday life.

With every vulnerability comes the possibility of slipping into evil, corruption or harm. Today I have been down the slippery slope. With every vulnerability also comes the possibility of being founded by the sacred, knowing genuine freedom, beauty and courage. In my overly protected and privileged world I travel in pathways that let me stay cut off from my own vulnerability. Yet today it was in my need that I saw myself more clearly and noticed others in my path a bit more honestly, and I received help without any merit at all.

When I pass the curbside check-in and the valet who offered his phone to me, I wave mine and smile. He shouts “Oh! You got it back!” And he flashes a wide grin. I keep walking and I bless the moments of relational connection, growing straight out of my own vulnerability and need.

Some days you curse the fig tree, and some days you eat the figs. Today I’ve done both. Before sunrise.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Mortal One.'” (Luke 21:34-36)

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