I had a conversation in a dentist’s chair last week that is echoing in my memory.
I’m new to this particular dentist, and so I had never before met the hygienist who would be responsible for cleaning my teeth. I shook her hand and learned her name – for the purposes of this story, let’s call her Emily – before she produced her tools and began to work.
In common with many medical procedures, there is something odd and awkward and intimate and vulnerable about dental work, there is something inherently goofy about a stranger digging around in your mouth. Most of the time, we fend off that goofiness by engaging in what our culture calls small talk, in conversations carefully designed to avoid big experiences and big feelings. During those brief intermissions when the dental tools are out of our mouths, we chat about our plans for the weekend or sports or the song that we just heard on the radio.
But last week, Emily and I accidentally touched on something big. I remarked to her that I had heard that dental care is hard work emotionally and spiritually, that a disproportionate number of dental professionals are depressed because their patients are so often unhappy to see them. Emily agreed immediately, citing the famous and appalling statistic that tells us that the suicide rate among dentists is twice that of the rest of the population. And then she told me about an experience from her own life.
Emily had just graduated from school and was beginning her work as a hygienist. And she greeted the patients in her new workplace with enthusiasm. But she was continually surprised and disappointed by the dark cloud that folks carried with them into the office. Emily would say, “How are you?” to one patient after another. And one patient after another would reply by saying something like, “I’m good – but I’m sure not happy to see you.”
About a week in her new career, Emily abandoned the expectation that any of her patients would be happy.
She then explained that the reason that she was so surprised by her patients’ behavior in that first week was that, during her time in school, she and her classmates had cleaned the teeth of impoverished people. And all of the poor people who had come to see them had been profoundly grateful to have dental care.
Now, I’ve preached and written about gratitude a lot. Gratitude is one of my “go to” subjects; I agree absolutely with David Steindl-Rast when he tells us that gratitude is “the heart of prayer.” And so I will confess to being shocked by Emily’s words – or, more accurately, I will confess to being shocked by what her words told me about my own behavior. That’s because, like many of her patients, I have had the privilege of having access to excellent dental care my whole life. And I’m embarrassed to say that I have taken that privilege for granted. Prior to sitting in that chair last week, I’m not sure that it had ever occurred to me to be grateful to be in a dentist’s office. I had always chosen to focus instead on the minor discomfort of having my teeth cleaned.
The irony is that I know a good number of people who have suffered from the absence of dental care. My own father, for instance, tells the story of enduring a paralyzingly painful toothache as a young man; I don’t even want to imagine what that kind of hurt must be like. I like having a good dentist. I appreciate the reality that, most of the time, the worst pain that I experience in my mouth comes from the occasional ice-cream induced brain freeze.
And so I want to take my conversation with Emily as a challenge. I want to extend my commitment to gratitude into the dentist’s office, I want to walk through its doors thankful that there are people who will help me to care for my teeth, I want to remember the lesson taught to us by the impoverished folks who come to the dentist full of thanksgiving.
Next time, as I sit down in Emily’s chair, I want to be grateful to see her.