What I learned from the Dentist

12_oral_health_5                                                                                  (Photo Credit: Financialtribune.com)

 

I looked at my calendar again and sighed.  I had scheduled a dentist appointment for this morning and now I was wishing I had delayed it a little longer.  I don’t know about you, but I experience some vague sense of dread heading into a dental appointment.  It probably has something to do with a healthy instinct for avoiding potential pain and has something to do with the fact that i really hate high-pitch sounds shrieking close to my ears.  Not to mention, the fact that it brings to the forefront latent guilt for not taking better care of my teeth – again!  But I think the dread goes deeper than either of those temporary discomforts.  Being at the dentist recalls something to mind that I would rather forget.

I must not be the only one who suffers from this vague sense of dread because I have found the dentist office to be more persistent in its efforts to send you reminders to come to their appointments than any other business I can readily think of off hand (with the possible exception of the debt collector office).  This particular dentist office had send me an e-mail, a letter with new patient documents, a text, and had called me and left a message on my phone.  They heroically left no possible avenue for communication or reminders notices untried.

Still with all those messages, I had tried to put the appointment out of my mind until I had to actually get in my car to show up at the appointment.  I put on a brave face and opened the new door.  Since I was a new patient, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.

After the formalities of X-rays and chart history information had been updated – so that my name became linked to a set of black and white skeletal images on a glowing screen and a set of numbers attached to each tooth along with a brief history of extractions and periodontal work – I laid back in the chair at an awkward angle searching for something interesting to look at on the wall as I waited for the hygienist to put down her favorite high-piercing tool she had been using to clean my teeth.  My mind began to wander back to “new patient” forms I had just been asked to fill out.  I had come across the question, “Do you have anxiety about dental visits?”  I wrote, “sometimes” meaning “all-the-time”.  And then the surprising follow-up question, “How do you overcome your anxiety?”  I had written down a single word in response – “prayer”.

And that is precisely what I was doing now – praying.  Praying for it all to be over soon.  Praying that I would not cry out in pain.  Praying that nothing would be find seriously wrong with my teeth.  Finally the hygienist was through with me and it was the dentist’s turn.  To be fair,  this dentist was more thorough than most I had ever encountered – actually reading through chart notes, asking questions, and carefully examining each tooth before finally stating in a resigned manner, “I don’t see anything that needs to be fixed right now.  I guess we are just maintaining.”

“Maintaining”.  I mulled the word over as I ran my tongue over my sleek newly-cleaned front teeth.  There was something vaguely disquieting about the word.  I picked up my packet and appointment card and walked out to my car.  As I backed out of the parking space and then pulled out of the parking lot, I was still thinking about it.  What was there in that word that had given me pause?  As I drove back home, I thought about how the word seemed to imply that the dentist did not expect my teeth to ever really improve again.  At age 40, the best they could hope for was “maintaining” the present condition and try to safeguard against further deterioration.

But everyone knows that simply “maintaining” something is always ultimately a losing battle.  The roads we drive on are “maintained” because we expect that they will never get any better on their own.  They will always fall into disrepair if not “maintained” – and even then, eventually a new road must be paved over the old.  I realized then that going to the dentist was a reminder of something deeper – my own losing battle with aging.

It was a regular reminder of my mortality.  Teeth are the one visible part of our skeleton that we see on a daily basis.  As though it were left as a remnant to remind us that our bodies will not always be clothed with skin, but will one day return to dust and bone from which we came.  No wonder I felt uneasy about making dental appointments!

In American culture, such reflections are often considered morbid – an unhealthy obsession.  But I don’t think so.  I believe it is healthier to grapple with the reality of our limited time to live this life than to continually distract ourselves from it simply because we don’t have control over it.  For when it comes down to it, our relationship with time is really a relationship with birth and death.

When I was in college, I would often go up to one of the guy’s dorms at the edge of campus to meet up with friends for card playing or a movie night out.  The interesting thing about this dorm is that it was built right up against an old cemetery.  Many of the guys who lived there often joked that they always lived with the “view of eternity” right outside their window.  Death had seemed like such a distant possibility in those days – something that was easy to laugh and joke about.

Now that I am 20 years older, the presence of Death is more keenly felt, and it seems that it’s a real character in my life with its own key part to play – like in “The Book Thief”.  Only it is a character that no one wants to talk about.  There are few spaces where this kind of conversation and honest wrestling with how to think about our mortality and the mortality of those close to us and what implications it has for how we live this one given life.  I would argue that such spaces are crucially needed in our present culture and generation as we have experienced such fragmentation of heart, distraction of mind, and acceleration in the pace of life that there are “cultural spaces” that allow for consideration of our lives’ ultimate aims and purposes.

And for that reason, I am thankful that I went to the dentist today.  Maybe the next time you go to the dentist, you can spend your time in the waiting room stepping back for a moment and reflecting on the preciousness of this life you have been given.

You may glimpse more than you guess…

 

Oh Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days;                              and let me know how fleeting I am!  Behold you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you.  Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!   Selah.   Surely a man goes about as a shadow!  Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;    man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!

And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?

My hope is in you.

Psalm 39:4-7

 


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