What's Tony Thinking

At the Dentist


I am hanging out in the spacious lobby of a medical-dental building located in one of Seattle’s east-side suburbs. One of our progeny is having oral surgery serious enough that someone has to be nearby and available to drive the post-op patient home afterwards.

This particular building is one of perhaps a dozen in this sprawling office park complex, all full of dentists, oral surgeons, orthodontists, dermatologists and other specialists.

I note the names. “Loving Dentistry,” “Remarkable Smiles,” “Gentle Care.” I don’t remember dentist’s practices even having names not so long ago. All of the new names are intended to reassure patients. They promise pain-free healing, even transformation.

As a kid we went to a dentist who I suspect would be bemused, or perhaps perplexed, by the subsequent turn of his profession to the upbeat and pleasant. That was not Dr. Haggerty’s m.o. His approach to the human mouth didn’t seem all that different from that of auto mechanic to a car’s engine. “Let’s get in there and bang around,” might have been the name of his practice. The other memorable thing about Dr. Haggerty was the hair in his nose. It was a dense forest of black and gray. “How can he even breathe through that thicket?” my sister and I wondered.

The shift in dental practice seems a sign of the times. Instead of a gruff, white-coated Dr. Haggerty, commanding “open wide” and setting to, today’s dental practitioners explain what they are going to do, tell you if you are likely to experience the slightest discomfort, and apologize if you do.

It’s all about you!

Which is great. After a recent root canal I even sent a thank you note to the oral surgeon in which I said, in part, “One of the reasons I’m glad I’m alive now and not 100 years ago, is modern dental surgery. Thanks for your good work.”

At the same time, the cheerful names of modern dental practices — “Loving Dentistry!” “Remarkable Smiles!” “Happy Faces!” — also reflect a society that would like to pretend suffering doesn’t exist or that a life without pain or suffering is our due.

I kind of think that is a particular aspect of the ethos of the American suburbs where I am at the moment. While waiting here I spent some time wandering in a nearby boutique shopping center, one designed to look like a village in Norman Rockwell’s America. Now, I am the last person who should pass time in a shopping center, I admit, but golly it all seemed so cute and so pretend.

In a recent post I mentioned Martin Luther’s distinction between a “theology of the cross,” and a “theology of glory.” The former keeps company with pain and finds the hidden God most present in the cross. The latter pretends suffering and failure don’t exist and can be avoided if you are the right kind of person or belong to the right group or tribe.

COVID is surging again and we won’t pretend our way out of it. Sometimes you have to look a hard thing in the face and call it what it is. If there is a message to America in this pandemic, that may be it. Call it reality-therapy. We’re due.



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