What do you make of the little irritations in life? Do you let them roll off of your back, or allow them to ride on your shoulder like tiny, unbearable monkeys? Are you a big picture kind of person, or someone who has tunnel vision when it comes to mistakes and flaws?
Me, I’m a teeth grinder. At night, while I sleep, I crush my teeth together, making a sound that rivals a trash compactor. Unfortunately, I’m approaching the decade mark for this unpleasant habit. Even worse, I’ve been in denial about it for almost as long. Last year, I started seeing a massage therapist to relax my jaw and teach me a few exercises to get my muscles to chill the heck out. Like jaw yoga. It worked, a little bit, for a little while. But, as most people who don’t live in a town called Denial already know, grinding has very little to do with inherent muscle clenching and everything to do with your brain. Jaw yoga is not going to fix it (real yoga might).
Okay, you ask, why should I care about your teeth? Or your grinding? And what does this have to do with me? And is there any free cake coming my way? And why don’t you just post a picture of that cute white pig and be done with it, already? I hear you. Stay with me (or, if you need a little mental break, read about Cinderella, the pig who overcame her fear of mud by wearing rain boots). Are you back? Good.
Teeth grinding is a pretty obvious metaphor for the terrible gnashing that can occur inside of our brains. It’s our bodies’ way of manifesting stress and frustration. Knowing all of this, and realizing that it would be a long process to stop grinding completely, I finally bit the bullet, so to speak, and went to the dentist for a mouthguard. But before they could choke me with their strange silly putty teeth-molding-gunk, they told me that I should let them build up a few of my teeth. Turns out, ten years of grinding reduces the amount of enamel on your pearly whites. Surprise! So I said, “Okay!” very kindly let them stick me with needles, apply enamel, use some sort of burning, buzzing grinder to sand down the excess, and went home to drool and dribble water for the next four hours.
Once the novocaine wore off, I noticed that there was a rough spot on the back of my front tooth. I didn’t think much of it, at first. But over the next few days, I found myself tracing the spot with my tongue. Over and over again. It drove me crazy. I went back to pick up my beautiful new nerd-guard, and asked them to “Please do something about the terribly annoying, giant crack you left on the back of my tooth.” The dentist, insisting that he didn’t want to undo too much of the work, very gently buffed the offending spot. After tonguing the tooth for a minute or two, I declared that it seemed to be fixed, thankyouverymuch, took my bag of floss and miniature toothpaste, and made my way home.
I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Back in Crazy Person Land (a close neighbour of Denial Town), several days passed, and I noticed another rough spot, slightly below the first one, and smaller. My tongue started sliding against it now and again, then more often. It became an unconscious habit fueled by stress. The more stress I felt, the more action that little rough spot saw. The more I think about the tiny things that I can’t control, the larger and more vicious that tiny monkey on my shoulder grows. As much as I try to look at the bigger picture most of the time, I can be quickly drawn into the vortex of the small. All of the little worries and mistakes, the mix-ups and missed opportunities collect themselves into a giant heap I like to call, “You’re Not Doing It Right.”
You’re not doing what right? Oh, you know: Life. See how ridiculous it seems when I write it down like that? But you’re probably guilty of the same thought. What are all of those tiny irritations that we find ourselves fixating on really about? Is it that other people are annoying and incompetent, and that inanimate objects, like missing toothpaste caps and malfunctioning elevators, are out to get us? Or is it that we’re internalizing the small stuff, like that little rough spot, until we’ve made focusing on the inconsequential into a habit?
I went back to the dentist and asked, in my very sweetest ‘what’s wrong with you people’ voice, “Please, won’t you sand down my tooth with your sanding machine? Just a tiny bit more?” This time, the dentist was a woman, and she went to town, removing all of that expensive fake enamel from the back of my tooth and probably some of my own in the process. I went home, triumphant. The rough spot was gone! Rejoice! No more fixating. No more irritations. But the overarching moral of this story won’t let me off the hook so easily. A day later, to my dismay, there was no rough spot on the back of my tooth. Oh no. It was on the bottom of my tooth. It was probably there all along. I repeat, it was probably there all along. Is your mind blown? No? Here’s a picture of a pig.
What I’m trying to say is this: while it’s quite possible that the overzealous lady dentist created a chip in the bottom of my tooth, the more likely explanation is that all of those rough spots existed simultaneously. I just didn’t notice the smaller ones until the larger ones were gone. The bigger our problems are, the sillier the small stuff seems. Consequently, when we don’t have any really big problems, we torture ourselves with the little things that just don’t, under any circumstances, matter.
Running late? It really doesn’t matter. Stained your favorite sweater? It doesn’t matter. Lost a receipt? Caught the flu? Forgot your anniversary? Dented the bumper of your car? Forgot an appointment? Got a C? Blew a work proposal? It doesn’t matter. You’re alive. Whatever else you do or do not have going for you, you are one of the rare people who made it onto this planet. And you’ve probably got friends and family and big things to look forward to. And, unfortunately, you’ll have big problems. We all will. But in those joyous in-between times, revel in the smallness. Don’t dwell on the tiny rough spots. Relish your stupid mistakes. Because that’s all they are. Stupid. Like my tooth analogy. You’re doing it right. We’re all doing it right. Except maybe my dentist. I’m pretty convinced I need to find a new one of those.