Pain often comes from the body, but it lives in the mind. Anticipation and dread can bring pain early, heighten it, leave it lingering.
Speaking of which, I have a long history of bad dental experiences.
I didn’t lose my baby teeth like most children do. They simply wouldn’t loosen and fall out. They remained steadfastly fastened to my gums like sailors clinging to a ship on a storm-tossed sea. The only solution my childhood dentist knew was to numb me up and pull them out, one or two or three at a time, spreading the appointments over a period of months.
Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve the sting of a needle in my gums, peeking through my tightly shut lids to glimpse shiny silver pliers, experiencing the tug and hearing the crack as a tooth finally came loose against its will, and then biting on cigarette-shaped gauze to stem the bleeding.
All the ice cream in the world didn’t make me feel better. Trips to Grandma’s house to play her Nintendo didn’t hurt, though the night after each appointment I inevitably drifted off to sleep remembering the pulling, the crack, the blood. Digital distractions only do so much.
That’s where the dental fears began, but they continued to be fed by other small traumas: fillings badly done and needing replacement, an emergency root canal on a cross-country road trip, an endodontist in New Jersey so rude and rough I could never stomach going back for my follow-up appointment.
A couple of months ago, at a routine appointment with our local dentist (whom I adore, which is really saying something since I’d literally rather go through natural childbirth fifty more times than attend a single dental visit), he found an infection.
Solution? Root canal.
The icy fingers of anxiety climbed up my spine as my beloved dentist gently treated what he could and then urgently encouraged me to get the rest of it taken care of quickly.
“These types of infections can spread quickly,” he said.
I left with a prescription for pregnancy-safe antibiotics and made it all the way to the car before bursting into tears. I’ve run a marathon, walked on a broken ankle, and worked three jobs at the same time. I’m no pushover, but serious dental work is my kryptonite.
Over the next few days I fought dread and fear, worry and foreboding. I snapped at Daryl; I pacified the kids with unlimited water play in the yard (sure! turn on the hose again!); I watched way too many episodes of The Office.
Then, late Saturday, I worked on finishing my sermon. As is my habit, I logged on to our church website to watch last week’s preacher deliver his message, to help prepare my heart for the morning and to make sure my sermon carried on the continuity of the previous week. (The three pastors at our church follow a rotating preaching schedule.)
That preacher was Daryl. I watched as he read from Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane:
Going a little farther, Jesus fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him.
“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:35-36)
I often rush to the end of verse 36, when Jesus courageously accepts God’s will. But Daryl didn’t. He paused at the start of the verse.
“When I feel guilty that I’m afraid of impending pain,” Daryl said, “I remember Jesus asking God to let the cup pass from him. If he asks for that, we can, too. No guilt, no shame.”
I realized in that moment I’d been battling fear about the dentist but not only that; I’d been fighting shame, too. Shame that I was so afraid, shame that I couldn’t just muscle through my anxiety, shame that I was wearing the stress of the impending appointment on my sleeve.
Jesus’ words in Mark 14 gave me permission to be ruthlessly honest with God.
God, this really stinks, I prayed. I don’t want to have another root canal. I’m terrified and ashamed of how terrified I am. I wish it didn’t have to happen.
I prayed for miraculous healing, a prayer to which God said no.
I prayed for reminders of his presence, a prayer to which God nearly always says yes.
I sat in the endodontist’s chair with tears in my eyes and was shocked when he came into the room. I hadn’t met him before but at first glance he could practically be Daryl’s twin. God has a sense of humor.
With patience and gentleness he explained the procedure and things got underway.With nowhere left to hide, I put in my earbuds, turned up a podcast, and prayed.
I didn’t enjoy it by a long shot, but it stopped far short of my deepest fears of agony and distress. And while the Garden of Gethsemane is leaps and bounds more devastating than a dental procedure (I mean, really, they aren’t even in the same stratosphere), the same God was present with me in that sterile office as with Jesus in the green garden millennia ago.
Sometimes suffering brings the most lasting lessons.
Are you suffering? How can you be honest with God about your fears, about what you hope he would do for you?
If you’re interested in listening to Daryl’s sermon, you can find it here.