Redesigning Old Memories

Have you ever noticed how sometimes the most simple discussions can bring about the most unexpected moments of clarity?  While hanging out with a friend a few weeks ago, he reminded me of an old memory we shared.  He is a high school teacher, and several years ago he had a student in his class with very bad teeth and very little money.  She needed serious help, and he felt so strongly about helping her, that he paid me to do her dental treatment for her.  As we reminisced about how amazing that story was, I realized that I had almost forgotten all about her and what the 3 of us accomplished together.  As he retold a story to me that I had already lived, I felt happy… and, frankly, a little surprised.  It was like watching a really touching scene in a movie.  It was so heartwarming to imagine these 2 characters coming together to help a girl with no other options.

For a moment it was as if someone else was the protagonist in this story.  It was some other lady who had significantly altered this young girl’s life.  It wasn’t me.

He showed me a picture of her now, and she is a beautiful young lady with a beautiful smile!  This whole time he was the hero.  I was paid to help her, but he was the one who went above and beyond to help a young girl have a better life, a better future.  As we looked at her picture, he emphatically said to me, “look at that smile.  You changed her life.  You did that.  Imagine how different her life would have been.”  True.  Her life, confidence, and future all would have been very different had we not stepped in.

So why was I so surprised? 

I was surprised to feel genuine happiness when I thought of her.  It wasn’t fear or worry or stress like most of the times I thought of my old dental stories.  No, it was pure satisfaction.  I had forgotten the warmth and joy that moments like this brought to me over my years of practicing dentistry, even moments as significant as this one.  Over time I became detached from this positive experience, and it almost entirely dissolved from my memory.  What I did was no big deal.  I was paid to do my job.  But in that moment my friend opened my eyes, and I had my moment of clarity.  For the first time in many years I could actually see the beauty in how I was able to help her.  We are often slow to reward ourselves with praise, but seeing “me” as a “her” in an imaginary movie in my head allowed me to give myself a break.  Regardless of whether I was paid or it was my job, I helped change her life in a very profound way.

I was in so much pain at that time and hated every moment of my work life so much, that I couldn’t even see the good that I was creating for others. 

I was merely surviving.  I couldn’t notice how my work helped others.  I mean, I know at times I felt proud and fulfilled by my work and how it touched lives like hers, but the rough times overshadowed the good times.  Most of the wins disappeared entirely from my reality and ultimately from my memory.  I was drowning in my unhappiness, and I couldn’t see past it.  How ironic that I missed this, since I went into this career precisely for moments like these.  I can’t change that now, nor do I think I could have at the time.  I tried, but I was too bogged down in all the negative crap to see the other side.  At least today I can understand why that is.

When you’re hurting so much, sometimes your pain is so strong that you can’t see anything else. 

Clearly, I couldn’t.  It wasn’t until the latter years in my career that I discovered how little I wanted to help any dental patients.  Let me be clear.  It’s not that I didn’t want to help these people, but I didn’t want to do the stuff that was required to help these people.  My career coach and I often discussed how important it is to be of service to others for career satisfaction.  I should have been so happy as I had the ultimate job in terms of providing a great, noble service to others.  But when I thought about being of service to my patients, I felt resentful.  I didn’t want to be of service to them.  I wanted to be anywhere else in the world than in the office digging them out of their dental problems.  I only helped them because it was the right thing to do.  I had to.  It was out of integrity and duty, not because it filled their lives and my life with joy.

I was officially jaded.

For a long time I struggled to understand these feelings because I had always believed that I liked and cared about people, and I thought I wanted to help them have better lives.  It just didn’t make sense.  How could I so adamantly not want to help others?  I felt guilty and embarrassed.  I thought I was a bad, selfish person.  A phony.  I never admitted any of this to anyone.  But today I understand it: my pain prevented me from seeing.

Today I understand that the best and most we can give to others is when it comes from our own heart and from our own joy.

We can go around doing what is right, or best, or what needs to be done.  But I believe that what’s behind that counts too.  What are our intentions?  What energy are we putting into the world?  How good is it if we are in some way harming ourselves in the act of  helping others?  Is it possible to live in a world in which we can not only give without harming ourselves, but actually give to others while nurturing ourselves?

I know my answer to that. 

I have had this post written for weeks now, but I just couldn’t find where these thoughts were taking me.  I kept asking myself what was my point here.  But I was stuck, unable to finish this post.  Until last night when it clicked, and I had my second moment of clarity.  I saw a speaker at an event, and she asked the group, “what are you truly passionate about right now?”  As she so ardently described her passion and what drives her, it suddenly became so clear to me.  My passion is to help inspire, motivate, and even guide those who need a change.  I’ll admit my soft spot is for those who want out of dentistry, but it’s not limited to just that.  It’s anyone who is living the wrong life.  It’s those that spend their days wishing they could be somewhere else doing something else; those that most likely resent helping others because that very act causes so much pain for themselves.  As I listened to the speaker describe her passion, mine reignited in me like I had discovered it for the first time.  And suddenly now I see what a miracle it is to be of service to others… on my terms.

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19 thoughts on “Redesigning Old Memories

  1. very interesting story. Did you ever have any ‘apparently, complaining patients’ who later referred you patients because of your beautiful work? My point being,i think it’s human nature for people to ‘bitch’ in the dental chair… but once they live with their ‘new smile’ they realize how much you did for them. I had a minor stroke last September… put me out of the office for 3 months. I was overwhelmed by the response of pts “wishing me well’… telling me i ” cant retire…who else will take care of my teeth”…..half of which i thought hated me and my work.
    As mentioned before… it only takes one ‘bad patient’ on your schedule to ruin your day….. but after a few months of reflection on my chosen career.. I realized how many peoples lives i did enhance… even if i didn’t know it at the time.
    I don’t really have a point to make here… just thought it might be a nice addendum to your (as always) well written/.insightful blog post.

    1. Rick- it’s great to hear from you again. I’m sorry to hear about your stroke, but I’m glad to hear you have made a recovery! I think you have a really good and fitting point here. When big life events happen like this, that is when we see how much people care for us or appreciate us. But we don’t get to see that from people day in and day out. That’s a great parallel to what I describe in this post. Glad you at least got to see how much your patients trust you and care for you and appreciate all you have done for them. We just get so bogged down in the day-to day stuff— dentists and patients.

  2. And how great is it that you have this awareness now instead of 20 years from now…or never. Thanks for sharing this and for telling your very vulnerable truth.

  3. Quite a moving tale. You helping out the kid (even if somebody else paid for it) is a noble deed…you also deserve a credit for that because you did your best. It is not the outcome but our intentions that should count.

    Wonderful read!

    1. Thanks, Alok. I appreciate that. We dentists are so hard on ourselves that even if we have the best of intentions and do our best work, if we don’t get the results we want, we terrorize ourselves over it. But it’s always good to remind ourselves of what you said because it’s true!!

  4. Yes as Kristy says, it’s great you found out now. You have put words to my feelings about my career, being a hearing aid dispenser has many similarities to being a dentist I think, but I am at the 20 years from your now stage, so in a couple of years I will stop working as such and can then find something of my own, at long last. 🙂 In the meantime I’m going to try and make better thoughts of the people I do help!

    1. Hi fraggs– that is so interesting that so many careers have these similarities that yours and mine share. I think it’s being in the mixed health care/service industry. It’s very complex and we deal with the same things. My aunt was an optician, and she had similar stories. Ears, eyes, mouth… hmm… all in the same region! Anyway, I know you work your tail off, and I will look forward to hearing about what is next for you. Until then, at least you’ll get to use this perspective to remember the good you are doing to help these people.

  5. I can relate to so much of what you said. And yes you do have a talent for inspiring others as you blogs often provoke clarity for me too. So thanks!

    1. Thank you, Mark! You answered the question I never got around to asking in this post (although I wanted to.) I was wondering if others felt that same way, and I wonder how many of us do. I’m guessing quite a few. I’d love to hear where this clarity takes you down the road!

  6. What a lovely story to share and have shared with you.
    I have a friend (and fellow Asshole) Matt who has amazing recall and he often will tell me stories about my own life. Maybe things that weren’t important enough for me to remember, or just things that have faded into the background, but when he tells me I feel like I have such a new perspective on them. May we always have such friends.

    1. Thanks, Jay! I had to go see what you meant by fellow asshole… I like that. I guess that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how we want to remember something… don’t you love it when someone knows your life better than you??

  7. Lola,
    I love this blog!! All of what you have said makes tremendous sense and is very uplifting. I have been having a bad week but feel so much better after reading this. Many times in Dentistry I wonder if I am frustrated in the job I am in or the profession. I do have great patients who love me but then there are those who completely ruin the day for you. I have been letting the negatives overshadow my positives. Dentistry is a challenging profession and demanding physically and emotionally. But I can’t let it cause me so much anxiety and guilt right? If there is one thing I really want to do, it’s teaching dentistry..like a clinical instructor. I don’t know how to make that happen but a least I am thinking about it.
    Keep writing Lola….I really needed this today!

    1. Mum, you made my day! That’s why I do this. If you have any contacts at the dental school, I would reach out to them. I don’t know much about it, but I would imagine getting into teaching would be a little easier than switching careers entirely. It is a hard career, but it would be nice to go through life with less anxiety and guilt. Hope your days stay positive and that you’ll continue to keep in touch.

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