This post originally appeared in the form of a column in the series, “Denim Spirit” published weekly by The Finger Lakes Times (NY): http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-embracing-the-dentist/article_93132cc8-5c06-11e7-92c5-1f0223fb3db2.html
In Vermont where I began my career as a writer, the changing colors of mountains along with the motion of trees in the wind, not to mention the staccato restlessness of birds, filled the theater of my window onto the world. From my leafy neighborhood in Geneva, there are no mountains. Even so, I lose track of how many shades of green I can count in the half dozen yards and old cemetery seen from my current perch.
More seismic is the addition of people. Whereas few if any people populated my view in Vermont, human presence is now a constant. In particular, I watch people go to and fro from a dentist’s office.
It can be a blissful sunny day with mild seventy-degree warmth kissing their faces, or a harsh wind pinging cheeks with hardened snow, but either way they come and go with the same cadences to their steps. Young or old, getting out of the car is slow motion. The long sidewalk to the entrance is a Pirate’s plank, and the heaviness in their shoes is nearly palpable. Faces drip with frowns, turn steely with stoicism, or hide in the shadow of a bended neck as if they count every step.
As the patients walk out the sequence is reversed. Erect, even bouncy sometimes, they head back down the sidewalk with unbridled relief or anticipation of the next and happier appointment. It’s a new day, and whether the actual clouds have lifted or not, they are ready to join in!
Whoever coined the metaphor, “I’d rather have a root-canal” brilliantly captured the woe of someone digging into our mouths. Never mind that with modern dentistry there is little pain, and a tremendous array of new options for dental care and restoration; anyone above a certain age can remember the discomfort of the old days. Even without such memories, a shot in the gum or sound of drill whining into enamel is not what most people call a good time.
Still, what a relief it is to get an appointment if we have something go wrong with a tooth. In contrast, I read an article once theorizing that tooth decay and infection was the leading cause of death in Neolithic cultures. I have fillings which have outlasted any car, couch, clothes, or dog I ever had.
How often do we drag ourselves to the very thing that will grant us health and renewal simply because it also includes discomfort? We love the hammock of homeostasis, that easy equilibrium in which we rest in the familiar. Yet growth, maturation, and health inevitably push us outside our comfort zone.
It is cliché to say, but nonetheless true: we often resist what we need most.
The role of discomfort and pain is often to indicate a need for change, or modification of routine or habit. In our culture, given easy access to an array of painkillers, we often mask those indicators. I fear we are slowly but surely reducing our ability to live with discomfort and pain, instinctively reaching for things that can eliminate it rather than also listening to it.
Perhaps that sounds like lunacy, but the human instinct is to modify our environment to the point of comfort at all times. We consume gluttonous amounts of fossil fuels to air condition or heat our living spaces just to be comfortable. In the meantime, that very lust is destroying the atmosphere outside.
We need to listen more, and temper our desire to avoid discomfort.