Life is like pulling teeth

Consider the phenomenon of teeth-pulling: an older, larger, and stronger human creature offers to snap a bone off your face.

No wonder kids find the whole experience terrifying. Adults have even developed a special lexicon in an attempt to disguise the trauma. After “working” on a tooth for a minute, the adult tells the child, who now has tears in his eyes, that it’s “not ready,” meaning, “All the pain you just felt accomplished nothing. You now have six or seven days to dread the repeat of this exercise.”

To make tooth-pulling seem less like punishment, adults created Tooth Fairy. Whether the prize was a quarter or a five-dollar bill, they believed that the promise of wealth would assuage their children’s fears. How typical.

I didn’t like the idea of any strangers being in my room while I was sleeping. I don’t care if you’re a leprechaun, troll, or the Tooth Fairy. Wearing velvet and having a fat bank account changes nothing. Where I come from we have one name for people who hang out at night in the rooms of other people’s children: Pervert.

“I’ll spend the money if you leave it, Mr. or Mrs. Tooth Fairy, but I’d prefer you just keep your filthy paws out from underneath my pillow. What do you do with all those teeth anyway? Sell them to Oscar Meyer for use in their hotdogs? Go find friends your own age, you sicko.”

One time, I decided to pull my own tooth.

I tied a piece of dental floss around the loose tooth, then gave it a tug to see how much force was necessary. Yikes! It was still in there pretty good. Plan B was to tie the floss to a door then slam it shut.

As I was pacing around the den trying to psych myself up, my older sister Elizabeth walked in the room.

“What’s that?!!” she asked, but before I could answer, she grabbed the floss hanging from my mouth and yanked on it.

Sure enough, the tooth flew across the room and landed on the carpet. Not knowing what else to do, I burst into tears.

“I was going to pull it!” I yelled. “I was going to do it myself. Why did you do that?”

“Well, now you don’t have to worry about it.” She smirked and walked off.

She received no punishment, and I found a dollar underneath my pillow. This is the world we live in. I’m sure I’ll have to pull some teeth one day, distracting my little ones as though I were about to give them a shot. “You’ll feel a small prick. What’s your favorite color? Okay, there, all done.”

I’ll also probably find myself using other grown-up propaganda like, “This hurts me worse than it hurts you,” and “You’ll understand when you’re older.” Will I understand or will I just stop asking difficult questions?

Despite the borderline lies and clever half-truths, parents must carry an open wound in their hearts for their children. No matter what lengths they go to to share their own experiences, provide instruction, and protect their little ones, they still must send them out into the Savage Land of bullies, cliques, and crushes. No one writes a manual on how to navigate with grace and poise the hurt and disappointment of that fly ball you dropped or piano recital you botched.

Kids never know what they’re supposed to be feeling or how they’re supposed to act or what any of this is supposed to mean. Nothing can prepare you for the endless procession of traumas and triumphs that is childhood: getting made fun of or ostracized at school; getting your heart broken by a girl; not making the team; not getting the part; not winning the election; listening to your parents fight. Kids would eat their vegetables every night if it meant avoiding these rites of passage.

At least when your uncle tries to pull a tooth that’s not ready, the pain is temporary, and you know who to blame. I’m still waiting to find money under my pillow for all the other bloody noses and ugly heartbreaks. I should have racked up at least a couple million bucks by now. I have a hunch that I’m the only one keeping track.

Rather than give my kids money, I’ll share with them what I’ve learned: the less you blame others for your suffering, the more space you will have in your heart to store up joy. Your heartache does become money. In looking for ways to listen well to other people’s pain and quiet it, you will experience healing. Lay down your life, and you will gain it.

If that doesn’t do the trick, I’ll buy them ponies.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted May 31, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, I always left my teeth alone until they were hanging on by almost nothing and then they would come out painlessly when I ate something like a peach. Sometimes procrastination can pay off, but that’s probably not a good lesson to teach your kids. Well written, Austin, I enjoy your blog.

  2. Austin L. Church
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you enjoy the blog, Emily. I heard somewhere that the best comedians are the ones who have endured great suffering. I don’t claim to have suffered much, but I do believe that humors opens the doors of the heart so that it can receive truth. If we can take a different posture towards our suffering—turn over the umbrella to catch the rain—then our confusion and heartache can do some good for other people. There’s my sermon for the day.