What My Dentist Taught Me About Happiness

Written by: Christopher Sell

Primary Source: The Wednesday Wake Up

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A few weeks ago I was paying a few bills online when I noticed that we had a small balance at the dentist’s office. I called the office to arrange payment, and it got me thinking about all of the times I’ve visited the dentist. Though many loathe and fear visiting the doctor charged with helping you keep your molars happy, I’ve grown accustomed to a much different experience. My dentist also happens to be my cousin, so that helps, too. And my positive predisposition toward my dentist was on full display when I had to get my wisdom teeth removed a little more than ten years ago.

Little did I know my dentist would remind me of one of life’s most important truths.

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I remember the day well. I won’t forget my dentist injecting my gums all over to numb my mouth from the pain of excavating four very large teeth. The procedure lasted several hours, and I did my best to sit motionless while he extracted the unwanted molars. Towards the end of my visit, I was sitting in the dental chair — my face numb and limp from all the Novocaine — when he said it, when my dentist told me the secret to happiness.

“Until you can completely feel pain again, don’t eat anything solid.”

We think the secret to life is achievement and status and comfort and painlessness. But we’re wrong.

Our pain is the secret to life.

We can’t even eat unless we’re capable of feeling it.

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We are a people obsessed with avoiding our pain. The DEA reports sales of prescription painkillers increased sixteen-fold in the last ten years. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are the two most popular painkillers. A few years ago, pharmacies distributed 111 tons of those pills in the U.S. alone.

We build our lives around comfort and safety and ease. We feel entitled to painless living. Both physically and emotionally. We will go to great lengths to avoid our interior pain—our sadness, grief, powerlessness, fear, despair, shame, and anger. As Carl Jung said, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul.”

But what is the psychological equivalent of a painkilling pill?

Personal myth.

By myth, I mean the ever-so-slightly deceptive stories we tell ourselves. About ourselves. About other people. About the world we live in. Our personal myths are the beliefs that protect us from the pain of life.

Young men subscribe to lies that tell them they should avoid expressing emotion or performing tasks deemed “feminine” by society. Men get admonished by other men for taking 48 hours of paternity leave to be with their wife for the birth of their child. The consequences of patriarchy can be felt everywhere.

Young women will adopt the toxic (and false) belief that their cumulative worth is defined by their outer beauty rather than their inner strength. One doesn’t need to travel farther than Hollywood to find a culture in which this credence has been brought to fruition in the form of plastic surgery that seemingly has become as commonplace as painting your nails or combing your hair.

And our myths protect us against the details of our story that feel too painful to acknowledge: the hurt felt in the abusive relationship, the race for worth in a family with parents who didn’t care, the loneliness of the schoolyard taunts, the nagging emptiness of a paycheck with no meaning, or the regret about the pain we caused someone else.

Our myths keep the pain of reality at bay, and so they sustain us with a false sense of freedom.

But what if we’re like puppies, chasing our tails inside the comfort of a grassy yard, thinking we’re free, when we’re actually imprisoned? What if our pain is like an invisible electrical fence, keeping us penned in and depriving us of a vast world and the freedom to fully live in it? What if our personal myths are just Kibbles ‘n Bits—pacifying morsels that keep us from deciding to walk through our pain into the freedom of fully living?

What would it look like to freely enter into our pain and walk through it? What might a life of freedom look like on the other side of our pain?

I think the willingness to walk into our pain sets us free, and I think that kind of freedom makes us a powerful people.

In a culture that says we should be working at all costs to numb our pain, authentic relationships with family and friends — those that often resemble a therapeutic experience — become instrumental vehicles for confronting their myths and walking through the pain of it.

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I was reminded of this last week during an episode of one of my favorite television shows, NBC’s Parenthood, when a character named Hank (portrayed by Ray Romano) talks to his therapist about Sarah Braverman, a woman he cares about (portrayed by Lauren Graham). While discussing his past history with her, he begins to realize that he may have been blinded to the pain he may have caused her when he abruptly left her to relocate to another state. Hank’s therapist then brings the revelation into focus:

“During our time together”, he calmly explains to Hank, “you might start questioning some things that you previously took as truths.”

Hank was beginning to question his myths. It was painful. But necessary in his quest for happiness.

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Some of the happiest people are those who have decided to work through their myths to find the real story. They are insisting there is more to life. They have decided there is a vast, beautiful world waiting for them—a world they are missing and that is missing them. They have decided to forsake their myths in favor of reality, and they are stepping directly into the pain of their invisible fences.

And they learn that the pain can be intense. But it doesn’t last. If you keep moving into it, keep moving forward, the pain is temporary. And they are stepping into a world in which pain is an acceptable consequence of fully living.

They are learning that people are waiting on the other side of the fence, to embrace them, and to walk hand-in-hand with them into the open expanse filled with possibility and wonder.

They are discovering the power of a people who are not absolved of pain, but who are set free from the fear of feeling it.

In the end, pain is inevitable. But if we numb our pain, we also become numb to the happiness that we deserve.

If you don’t believe me, just ask my dentist.

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My name is Christopher Sell and I'm an educator in higher education. At my core, I'm passionate about creating synergy and connecting people to opportunity. I place tremendous focus on collaboration, strategic planning, forward-thinking, and teamwork in any professional environment. As an alumnus of Western Michigan University (WMU) and Michigan State University (MSU), I'm equally committed to leveraging relationships with industry and students/graduates to retain & attract talent in the state of Michigan and contribute to the economic revitalization of the "Mitten State" that I love so much. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of the Pure Michigan campaign.

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