Before his passing, my dear old friend Gerry Keston told me that one of the best decisions he ever made was having all his teeth pulled and getting dentures. For several years, I thought about following suit, and not just because a good friend had recommended dentures. I hated my teeth. I hated them, and blamed them for much of my woe, in spite of the many years of chewing pleasure they had given me–cheerfully surviving stress, grinding at night, sweet foods, bad genetics, and my own almost criminal neglect. To my childish mind, my teeth had been my torturers. They were to blame, largely because they made me go to the dentist.
Going to the dentist brings out the worst in me: the whiny, peevish victim; the self-pitying coward.
Mind you, I have faced some scary situations: falling from ladders; rolling a VW beetle; getting shot at by drunk rednecks in the desert; living and working in L.A.’s Pico Union neighborhood, with one of the highest homocide rates in the nation; being attacked by a gang leader who broke my jaw; and working at LAUSD’s central office.
I also have a spiritual side! I’ve been meditating and doing yoga every day for going on forty years, and have achieved a fair degree of self-control in many areas of my life, maybe even a little enlightenment. I have learned to reflect, to moderate my reactions, to show patience and kindness with those who infuriate me, to show compassion and understanding to those with whom I strongly disagree, and who must therefore be wrong. I have learned to take a deep breath when asshole drivers cut me off; to chant affirmations when I’m waiting in line behind clueless people. I’ve taken bad situations and transformed them into desirable outcomes through my relentless pursuit of positive thinking. With aplomb, I have survived earthquakes, brushfires, and many near-death experiences. I’ve even survived living with a Chinese mother-in-law for twelve years without so much as a loud argument, and I helped raise a teenage daughter (albeit somewhat haphazardly) without one tranquilizer.
I have faced many dangers and hardships, but the mere thought of going to the dentist makes me want to change my name and move to another state.
My neurosis about dental work has gotten to the point where, during a recent visit to “prep” for a new crown (my “coronation,” as I like to call it), I was so traumatized and tense that I couldn’t get numb–even after my dentist gave me three strong shots of novocaine. Finally my dentist said I was too stressed for dental work that day; we would have to reschedule. We rescheduled.
Time came for the rescheduled “crown prep.” I canceled it and rescheduled again. My coronation could wait.
Meanwhile, there has ensued a far worse sequence of events.
On the first weekday of a recent Spring Break, I was “prepped” again–this time for implants. Knowing my extreme anxiety about oral surgery, my periodontist recommended Valium. I was loath to demur. The procedure involved some heavy drilling and jackhammering. When at last I wobbled out of the office, still numb from Novocaine and zoned on Valium, my lower left gum was in stitches and I could only have soft food and liquids for a week.
So far, so good.
The following Tuesday the same periodontist extracted a back molar on the upper right side. It was supposed to be a routine, 20-minute extraction for $150. It turned into a two-hour marathon of injecting, pulling, cutting, cracking, yanking, and re-injecting. The back molar in question had been root-canaled; it broke during the extraction, requiring extensive digging and tunnelling with scalpels and multiple efforts to yank out the remaining root fragments with an ever-growing variety of extraction tools that started out looking kind of like vice grips but mutated into other, almost psychedelic shapes. The resulting excavation of my gums required tissue grafting from my soft palate. I zoombie-walked out of my periodontist’s office with stitches from the roof of my mouth to the outside gum where the broken molar had been. As of this writing, I have been on liquids and mush for three weeks.
The poet Theodore Roethke once wrote: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” During my convalescence from gum surgery, I had some time to meditate more, and also to think deeply about my teeth, and my attitude towards them, and–guess what? I’ve had an epiphany! That’s right, my teeth–my worst enemies, I once thought–have opened the door to a new spiritual understanding. They have become my teachers. And here’s what I’ve learned from my teeth: The Four Epiphanies!
Epiphany #1. We have to take care of what God gives us, or it will be taken away from us.
This is a big one, and applies in a lot of situations. In my case, with my teeth, I didn’t brush as well as I could have. I stopped using my night guard when it got uncomfortable. I neglected to have it refitted. I let my teeth go to hell. That wasn’t their fault. I was responsible for their care, and in that I was negligent. Meanwhile my wife, who is famously NOT negligent, and who takes care of herself AND her family AND her job AND her house AND her car AND–to the point being made here–her TEETH, has had minimal dental problems.
Epiphany #2. Complaining and blaming others serves nothing and nobody.
I blamed my teeth for my misery, but it was I who had set up the conditions for their deterioration. My wife almost never complains about or blames other people. She takes responsibility for her own world, and so has become one of the most successful people I know. I, on the other hand, have done OK in my slacker kind of way, but if I had HALF of my wife’s work ethic, I would probably be a multi-millionaire.
Epiphany #3. We create our own reality.
In hating my teeth–in blaming them for my woe–I had wished my teeth gone, and in so doing, I had by neglected them and treated them badly, thus hastening their demise.
Epiphany #4. We create what we fear.
(This is almost a sub-epiphany for Epiphany #3.) By neglecting my teeth, in my hatred of them, I was creating the outcome I feared and hated the most: going to the dentist.
In Voltaire’s Candide, Pangloss is famous for saying that this is the best of all possible worlds, citing as proof the fact that our noses are perfectly designed to hold up our glasses. I would offer, as further proof, our teeth, who teach us cause and effect. Maybe this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, not YET, but maybe it can BE the best of all posssible worlds if we learn from all the things that come our way. Including bad teeth.
And no, I still haven’t finished that crown prep.