Dr. Leonard was about to trim down an old tooth for a crown and I was all numbed up, listening to the Beatles—Abbey Road—on small headphones. About halfway through, I began to feel the drilling. It wasn’t bad, but I was afraid the drill would hit the nerve and get much worse. Nerve pain in a tooth is such a piercing thing. There it was—a sudden jolt of sharp pain overcame my whole being, radiating out. You can never see it coming and there’s nowhere to go. I raised my hand while making a guttural sound. Dr. Leonard said, “You feeling that?” and gave me more Novocain and we were back on our way.
As he kept drilling, my mind began to reverberate. At times, I’m so afraid of feeling anything, but at the same time I so want to feel everything. There—with my mouth wide open, with George Harrison singing “Here Comes the Sun” in my ear, with the soft eyes of Dr. Leonard and his assistant Kari so carefully focused on the exposed nerve in my head—I realized that the tension of living often comes down to this paradox we all carry between our fear of feeling anything and our need to feel everything. I took a deep breath, trying to reach that larger sea of being in which my body drifts like a beat-up raft. Suddenly, I felt both strong and weak at once.
From that strong–weak place, I could see that we’re such fragile, resilient creatures, here for just a long unplanned moment, tumbling and waking in this beautiful, harsh, tender existence. Through it all, we ride this call to both stay alive and be alive, which has us running from all the things that might hurt us and break us, while seeking all the things that might wake us and break us open. Here we are: left to dig ourselves out of hiding when we deny life too much, and soothing our cuts and burns when we let life in too much.
Kari dabbed my numb lip and Dr. Leonard told me not to eat anything too hard for a while. He said the place under the tooth where he injected the anesthetic would be sore for a day or two. Even numbing the pain has its pain. They kindly waited to make sure I understood their instructions.
Back on the street, I closed my eyes and lifted my head to the wind—half my face numb, the other half feeling the slight bite in the air. It was still early, sunny but cold. I quietly laughed at how we’re each a walking koan, half feeling nothing, half feeling everything. I got in the car and drove on as life kept happening. As I slipped back into the stream of the ordinary, my awareness of our eternal battle between staying alive and being alive crept back below the surface.
I quietly laughed at how we’re each a walking koan, half feeling nothing, half feeling everything.
I rubbed the half of my face that was still numb, and thought, Everything that matters comes through being opened to life, even at the dentist. Perhaps when we can stand under our thoughts on the ground of life, perhaps in that moment, we stand on something that can last. And the only way to find what can last is to open our hearts and begin to care, even while we’re numb and afraid.
The tooth has healed and I can eat again. But there are deeper nerves to tend. Afraid of what I might feel, I go on, wanting to be touched by everything. This is how we find our way. When tender or sore, we have to be careful not to think life is other than where we are. When afraid, we have to stand under our thoughts to find solid ground. When feeling worn down, our inner beauty begins to show. For underneath the exposed nerve is something indestructible, if we can reach it. Like a song encased in all our flaws, waiting for a singer. S&H
Questions to Walk With
- In your journal, describe something you’re afraid of feeling and why, and describe something you want to feel and why. How does fear affect you? And how does wanting affect you?
- In conversation with a friend or loved one, discuss what it means to stand under your thoughts and open your heart.
This excerpt is from The One Life We’re Given (Atria).