“Everyone has a plan,” Mike Tyson once said, “until they get punched in the face.” The same’s true of visiting the dentist.
For a while now I’ve been practicing meditation. I don’t mean practising in the polished “practicing medicine” sense – I mean it in the geeky “kid learning clarinet” sense, or the “Hlaudi Motsoeneng running the SABC” sense: I keep doing it badly in the hope of someday getting it right. When I mention this in company people react as though I’m confessing to Scientology or still believing in the Rainbow Nation. People think there’s something feebleminded and passive about it, and maybe they’re right, but it seems to work and it makes me happy.
Now, one of the points of meditation is to make you less vulnerable to the whips and winds of circumstance: the more you do it, the better you are at receiving good news or bad and treating those imposters both the same. You don’t take things so personally, and half the pain and rage and fear of being a person is taking things personally. (The other half is data charges.) Still though, it’s one thing to stand with equanimity in a Home Affairs queue or to deal pleasantly with a sweary Twitter troll who’s accusing you of Palestinian genocide because of your taste in tomatoes, but the real test of not taking things personally is the dentist’s chair.
I have a fraught relationship with my dentist. She’s a frowny woman of Greek ancestry who reminds me of an Afrikaans high school teacher whose wealthy fiancé has just called off their engagement, and she treats me with an air of faint but not impermeable contempt, so of course I have a small crush on her. Every appointment I try to amuse her with hilarious role-reversal one-liners about how in Europe it’s other people who have to pull teeth to get money out of the Greeks, but she never laughs.
All I want is her approval. During check-ups I try be the stillest and calmest and least complaining patient ever. I open wide and hold it, even during those silent times when I suspect she’s checking Facebook behind the chair where I can’t see. I don’t make any of those passive-aggressive sounds of protest, even when the assistant leaves the suction tube in one place too long and it stops sucking up saliva because it’s too busy sucking up the inside of my cheek. Afterwards I always linger a little too long, like a departing drunken dinner guest on the doorstep, in the hope she’ll say, “You were very good today! So brave! The best patient ever!”
It’s craven, of course, and she never ever gives me what I need. Who would have thought a relationship with oral hygiene could be so unhealthy?
But this week things changed. It wasn’t just a check-up or routine maintenance – I had fractured a molar and needed serious work involving drilling and grinding and crowning. My mouth was Troy and my dentist was mighty Agamemnon, settling in for a long siege.
I tried to remind myself that discomfort is only a circumstance and mainly in the mind, but exactly how much hardware can you fit into a chap’s mouth? I counted six or seven pipes and tubes and clamps and superfluous heavy metal things going in, and at least twelve fingers. I closed my eyes and tried to contemplate the luminous quality inside of all of us, but for god’s sake, what’s that now?! That feels like … did she just put a rubber Minion in my mouth?!
It’s an almost unique experience, lying there for hours while someone roots around inside you for money: shocking intimacy combined with cold impersonality. Where else but in the middle of the night on a long-distance bus journey or economy class flight or in the backrooms of certain Cape Town nightclubs are you forced to share so much personal space with someone who knows you so little? My Zen-like calm began to crack. I felt my thoughts begin to race, my heart begin to pound. But then, just in time, I thought about it differently.
This is an opportunity I don’t get every day: to lie here awake and place myself non-sexually in the hands of another human being and trust her to do her best for me. Human beings don’t need to know each other to be intimate. It’s like two passengers helping each other out of a bus crash: it’s an emergency intimacy, something only we humans can truly do. This isn’t torture, it’s a beautiful moment of contact; it’s a moment of love.
Afterwards I sat rinsing and forlornly spitting. My dentist took off her gloves and slapped my arm with one of them.
“You did good,” she said. I beamed like a small boy.
The Times, 24 September 2015