When I was a little girl and I would get a cavity, which seemed like it happened often, they were so small and shallow that the dentist would pinch the skin between my thumb and pointer finger in order to numb my tooth. Totally logical. Eventually, he got to a cavity in which his Medieval-thumb-pinching-trick didn’t work and I felt the drill hit a nerve… both literally and figuratively. Therein began my complicated relationship with the dentist. And by complicated, I mean that my armpits are sweating as I type this and I routinely envision a world where dentists don’t exist and teeth can self-clean.
There are very few situations I find myself in that are as anxiety-provoking or produce as much fear as laying back in a dentist’s chair, mouth open, getting my teeth drilled. Or even just cleaned. I loath all of it. I would volunteer to do almost anything else.
Lately we have found ourselves in a similar situation in our actual lives… the dentist chair of life, if you will. You know, one of those seasons that feels like a constant root canal.
A little over a month ago Ryan lost his job. This is the third time that this has happened in the past five years. There are a lot of specific reasons for each situation that have contributed to each that I’m not going to get into… mostly because they are long and intricate and it’s not really part of any point I’m trying to make. The only thing I’ll say here is that Ryan is an extremely talented and totally competent human person who has had some crappy luck. It’s also safe to say that this is high up on his Biggest Fears Ever List and so the more it happens the more it messes with him.
It’s one of those life moments that has forced us to reexamine everything. There is an impulse to look back and wonder “what if we had just…” or “what if we hadn’t…” and it’s so easy to get lost and forget where you are going when you are looking backwards. And so for a few weeks, we stumbled around and couldn’t quite get our bearings as we tried to make sense of this, wondering where it all went wrong and what we could have done differently.
Of course that is possibly the worst and least helpful place to live. But we wandered around there for a while because sometimes our brains can trick us into believing that we are being productive if we imagine making different decisions at some random point in the past and then we can imagine that this one thing would have made all the difference and then we imagine that our lives would have turned out better and easier. Our brains are good at making us feel like all this imagining is the same as actually doing something. It feels like control, like we are being active, when in reality we are actually just sitting on our couch, staring out the window in our pajamas in the light of day.
I’m not sure what contributed to my tremendous proclivity to cavities as a young kid. I’ve been told that I have weak enamel and bad genes. I also didn’t floss my teeth until I was a grown adult with a fully formed frontal lobe and I’m not sure how much I excelled at brushing my teeth as a kid. But the whole thing felt entirely unfair because my mom was a total health nut and bought peanut butter that we had to stir, never allowed pop in the our house, and the best cereal we ever got was Raisin Bran. So it’s not like my teeth were swimming in high-fructose corn syrup and yet, there I was getting my thumb pinched and having my teeth drilled nearly every six months.
This is kind of how Ryan and I have felt recently, wondering why we kept finding ourselves in this position despite all of the careful decision making we thought we had been doing. We had worked hard, given things thoughtful consideration, and Ryan is one of the most talented, productive, diligent people I know. And yet, here we were, at the mercy of this life change, not knowing whether to fight and kick and push against it or simply lean into it and listen for the next right thing.
Several years ago, back at the dentist, I was getting an old filling re-filled— the not-so-fast, this-is-never-going-to-be-over, dental death spiral that seems to be an accepted, albeit troubling, truth of adulthood. Old fillings crack and need repair, the metal they used to use is basically slowly poisoning our brains, and there can be some nasty stuff happening underneath those old fillings. Needless to say, no matter how much I do now, I’m going to have to deal with my dumb teeth and the doctors that fix them for eternity.
So I was getting this filling replaced and the Novocaine wore off to the point that I could feel the drill colliding with the cavernous hole inside my tooth. I have never seen Clockwork Orange (solely based on the fact that I heard there was a torture scene that involved teeth-drilling), but that is all I could think of in that moment. I notified the dentist in the very dignified manner of waving my hands drastically and bursting into the ugly cry. Over the next forty-five minutes, he alternated between shots of Novocaine and drilling. And I lay there sweating and sobbing. Just when I thought I couldn’t look more ridiculous in a dentist chair.
When it was all over, he suggested that stress and fear can block the body’s ability to process the Novocaine. I have very rarely wanted to punch someone in the mouth more than I did at that moment. But his words came back to me last week when I was back at a different dentist for my regular cleaning when he told me that I had to replace yet another filling. They said they could do it for me right then and there. I immediately started shaking like Colton Underwood on The Bachelor, which is to say, violently.
I was fighting back tears as I told all of the people in the room that Novocaine sometimes doesn’t work on me. I suggested heavy, even illegal, drugs or sedation. They laughed as if I was trying to be funny and said I’d be fine.
As I lay there trying not to shake or cry visibly, I kept trying to relax and just trust that it would be okay. Instead of assuming that I was about to be tortured, I tried to convince myself that, since I could feel my eyeball go numb, that I was probably going to be okay. I closed my eyes and tried to take deep breaths and assume the best.
I’ve never imagined God to be a dentist, but I can’t help thinking that he’s asking us to do this same thing right now. Instead of assuming that we’ve made all the wrong decisions or that somehow we’ve thoroughly screwed it all up, just trust that this is exactly where we’re supposed to be. To lean more fully into the truth that the only lessons worth learning are during experiences of pain. And also, there is simply nothing else to do but accept the fact that this is where we are.
So here we are. We are leaning back in our chair, opening up, and letting God get to work… trusting that it’s all going to be okay.