I had a pretty significant realization recently while sitting in the dentist’s chair. It is not a place I usually experience great moments of clarity. Generally, I sit in the dentist chair with my ankles crossed and my hands folded across my stomach, white-knuckling it like I am about to be shot out of a cannon.
But even in that pose, I had a moment of clarity.
It was 10 am on a Friday, only six hours away from the flight I was supposed to catch to Wyoming for a week of hiking in the Grand Tetons. But because a filling in the back of my mouth had come loose, I didn’t feel it prudent to disappear into the wilderness with the possibility of a dental emergency. I already had enough anxiety about bears and tooth infection is way more common than a bear attack.
Which is why I was sitting in the dentist’s chair listening to him explain to me what a partial root canal would look like. I didn’t even know a partial root canal was possible. It didn’t sound better than a finished root canal, which until that point in my life (a life bereft of root canals) was the only kind of root canal I thought existed.
Because I had a flight to catch and the dentist had to squeeze me in, all he had time to do was drill out the root of the tooth, leaving me an uninfected but seemingly cavernous hole between my molars. It would be three weeks before he could finish the root canal.
Of course, this was happening to me.
That is what I kept hearing in my head. I thought of all the terrible things that had happened to me immediately before or while on vacation. Specifically, I flashed back to my Senior year of college. The day before going to Hawaii for spring break, one of my wisdom started pushing against the lining of my cheek. I went to the dentist and had it removed which meant I spent the next week on a beautiful island with not quite strong enough pain killers.
Even though it had been 15 years since Hawaii, the last even remotely similar experience, my brain was ready to make the connection, to justify why something would go wrong. It’s easier to be negative, to look for similar examples of things going wrong than to look at something as a solitary event, independent of our past actions.
I felt that same nefarious narrator creep into my head while downhill mountain biking last year.
And after watching two of our party of five go ass over tea kettle I wondered when it would happen to me. Because my sports injuries get increasingly worse as I get older. (See examples: Basketball dislocated shoulder and Rollerblading knees scraped to shit.)
I started to worry that it was only a matter of time before I crashed my mountain bike. I got nervous. And before the last run, I pulled out because I was in my own head.
Human beings are storytellers by nature. We love to tell stories of what we heard about others, of what happened to us. But we don’t always realize that we are constantly and privately telling stories to ourselves. Often, those stories are negative.
I always do this. This always happens to me. Ah, I always slice the ball. See, God is punishing me for what I did. I never get what I want.
It’s difficult because we don’t recognize these statements as stories, or smaller elements of the larger narrative we tell ourselves. They are instinctual, familiar, part of the way we operate. Noticing them is difficult. They are grains of sand that become a monumental though not immoveable dune of belief.
Our language becomes prescriptive instead of descriptive. We would be better served by replacing our “can’ts and won’ts” with “yets.” But just because we would be better served by something, doesn’t mean that something is easy to accept. There is a reticence I have felt in my life, even now as I write this, to move on or move through conflict or challenges without first fully understanding them.
And that’s a nearly impossible task. To hope for full and total comprehension before taking any action. A therapist once told me something that broke my brain. She said your actions change your thoughts easier than your thoughts change your actions. What she meant was, if you want to be happy, don’t wait for your brain to think you are happy, be happy. Do the things you would do if you were happy.
I’m most aware of this when I get sick with a bad cold or a fever. Going outside seems impossible. And then I get sick of my apartment, go for a walk and realize how good it feels just to be back in society and maybe I don’t feel as bad as I thought I did.
A couple of months ago, my fiancee and I lost a sheet pan in our kitchen. We didn’t notice it was missing until weeks after it had disappeared. With only limited places for it to be, we drove ourselves crazy trying to find it, until finally, we gave up. We slowly started “remembering” that we had burned it beyond use, fought about it, and thrown it out.
Last week, we found the pan behind the oven. With no clear answer to what happened, we had created an entirely fictitious story that aligned with previous experiences and fights we had. It seemed to make enough sense, and so we believed it.
Creativity, negativity, and frustration can lead to some fascinating coping strategies. In many ways it’s easier to be a storyteller of our known past than to be the author of our unknown future.
But whether it is root canals, mountain bikes or sheet pans, past experiences are no guarantee of future truths. What happens to us is only ever a portion of the story. We always hold the pen. Even if we forget we do.
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