How do we cope?
Maybe the best thing about being an adult is that you can cancel dentist appointments on an account for the simple, yet perspicacious rationale of: “Because I don’t want to go.”
I avoided the dentist for five years. During that time I brushed twice a day with an electric toothbrush that hesitated three times after two minutes to signaled I completed a brushing session, I flossed on occasions, and I even rinsed with mouthwash once or twice with cavity-control mouthwash. Yet age and microwave popcorn led to some chips, cracks, and cavities that needed fixing.
For months, I thought about returning to the dentist. A prodigal patient. But I was a nervous adult. Avoidance is a survival skill. Plus, I was in my forties. I had earned the constitutional right to cross my arms and huff, “You can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do.”
But a late night commercial for Sensodyne toothpaste informed me that teeth, unlike bones, cannot heal themselves. And enamel cannot be replaced. That tooth decay is irreversible. And avoiding the dentist could lead to permanent damage.
I tongued my teeth. Thought. Maybe it was time I grew up.
I brought Matt Haig’s “The Humans” to keep me company in the dentist’s waiting room. The 2013 novel is about an immortal alien who comes to Earth and assumes the life of famed mathematician Professor Andrew Martin. His mission on Earth is to exterminate the real Andrew Martin and Andrew’s family to prevent Andrew from solving the Reimann hypothesis– the key for solving space travel. However, as the book unfurls, Andrew begins to learn what it means to be human. It’s a science fiction novel that’s outside of my reading-genre wheelhouse but, somehow, “The Humans” slid into my “Amazon Recommendations” at the right time in history.
The receptionists behind the counter of the dentist office were both middle-aged. One had thick, straight salt and pepper hair and the other had thin shoulder-length blonde hair with tufts of gray around her ears. Behind surgical masks, they talked about the war in Ukraine. They used words like “senseless,” and “heartbreaking,” and “unbelievable.”
Early in “The Humans” Andrew ruminates: “This (Earth) was a place of death. Things deteriorated, degenerated, and died here. The life of a human was summoned on all sides by darkness. How on Earth did they cope?”
My phone vibrates. I pull it from my pocket. A notification informs me that VOX, a news website, just published: “How the war in Ukraine could change history.”
The receptionist with salt and pepper hair says someone on Facebook wrote, The prize for surviving the pandemic is witnessing World War III.
Tufts of gray lets out a sigh and says, “Peachy. This place is peachy keen.”
“Peachy keen is right,” replies Facebook.
Because this is a dentist office, a sterile environment, they can’t say what they really want to say. They speak in code. They keep their true feelings hidden. They said peachy keen but really they meant shit and fuck and I don’t want to die.
Maybe the worst thing about being an adult is knowing with bone-certainty we can’t avoid suffering. In our own ways, we all feel it. Sure we can delay suffering, try hard to avoid suffering, shift our attention to frivolous things but in the end, like the alien Andrew Martin realized, “Things deteriorated, degenerated, and died here.”
It’s irresponsible and foolish to compare my fear of going to the dentist with the world’s current fear of war. Like so many, I have witnessed the Ukrainian nightmare from the safety of my living room, felt a human chill up my human spine, and said out loud, “I can’t imagine.” In a peculiar way, at this very moment, it seems the broadcasting of the Ukrainian suffering reminds us humans, as fragile as we are, we are built to endure.
Through our endless suffering, we’ve developed a beautiful capacity to transcend our suffering. We’ve allowed suffering to refocus our perspectives, strengthen our values, fortify our resolve, and inspire change.
Next to the brass coat rack, hangs a framed poster of a family of four– a dad, a mom, a boy, and a girl–barefooted, holding hands, walking over green grass, smiling at me. Printed in white letters above them, “Show the world who you are.” Clark Able rests against my right leg. I’m at the dentist office at 10 a.m. on a Monday in March because I’m retired. And I’m retired because my brain (to further prove Andrew Martin’s observation), like everything else, is degenerating.
No matter what the receptionists say, this place is not peachy keen.
We will burn through the world’s supply of fossil fuels before we end suffering. Wars, pestilence, loss, heartbreak, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and toothaches infect the roots of this place. But amidst such suffering, we learned, rather amazingly, to cope.
Suffering is here to stay. However, suffering has strengthen our compassion for each other. Suffering has gifted us perspective and wisdom to understand what is truly valuable. And in our most vulnerable moments, suffering has offered us the capacity to hope. To connect. To inspire other humans to endure their own suffering. To show the world who we are.
This week’s post was partly inspired by Jane Holder’s book, The Mindset of Crisis Management: Caring for Yourself and Others in Times of Crisis.
Jane and I agreed to share our respective books with each other’s audiences. If you’re like me, feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything going on in our world right now, Jane’s book is a calming reminder to take a deep breath and take rational actions during these troubled times. Link: https://buy.bookfunnel.com/5v8fg2mpfb?tid=hrwtb36std
Video of the Week: A Woman Plays “What a Wonderful World” at a Ukrainian Train Station
If you would like to share something with others (a photo, a poem, a song, a quote, etc.) that tosses some positive vibes into the world, please send your suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
For those in the Philadelphia Area: A limited number of signed copies of Bedtime Stories for the Living are now on sale at Commonplace Reader in Yardley, Pennsylvania. The Commonplace Reader is a local bookstore with a wide selection of books, super nice employees, and plenty of cozy reading nooks.
Bedtime Stories for the Living
“This was an amazing book. Jay shares his journey through relatable stories that highlight the challenges every young parent goes through. His struggle with his own mortality while raising young kids only highlights the very real insecurities that we all have as we grow up and take on the responsibilities of adulthood. This is a great book for readers at any age to reflect on the challenges we face everyday and how we learn to overcome.”~ Steve, Amazon Review
If you happen to read BSFL, I would love an Amazon review! Due to some Jeff Bezos concocted algorithm, more book reviews lead to greater exposure. And greater exposure equates to higher book sales and as I wrote in BSFL, “college for three ain’t free.”
Are you a reader? Looking for your next good book to read or listen to? Check out my new page “Jay’s Book Shelf” for some book recommendations.
Here’s what I’m currently reading: The Humans by Matt Haig
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A Conversation with Marcus Aurelius at a Suburban Car Dealership
When I think of Love I think for Mike Tyson
The Allegory of the Broken Cereal Bowl
We’re lucky to be alive
Why we need to tell our stories
Jay Armstrong is a writer, speaker, and a former award-winning high school English teacher. Despite being diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, that impairs his movement, balance, eyesight, and speech–Jay presses on. He hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life. For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:
4. Hearing his three children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents or a drink with his friends)
Jay hasn’t had a bad day in quite a long time.
You can also visit Jay at jayarmstrongwrites.com