(What Your Dentist Knows) About the Secret to Life

Dr. Kelly Flanagan has written this post on his blog, Untangled. When I read it, I thought to myself, ‘This needs to be shared.’ So here is the first part (that will hopefully spark your curiosity to read the rest by clicking on the link at the end).

We think the secret to life is achievement and status and comfort and painlessness. But we’re wrong. The secret to life lies elsewhere. I know, because my dentist told me…

“Until you can completely feel pain again, don’t eat anything.”

I was sitting in the dental chair last week—the right side of my face numb and drooping—when he said it, when my dentist told me the secret to life.

Our pain is the secret to life.

We can’t even eat unless we’re capable of feeling it.

Yet, we are a people obsessed with avoiding our pain. The DEA reports sales of prescription painkillers increased sixteen-fold in the last ten years. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are the two most popular painkillers—in 2010, pharmacies distributed 111 tons of those pills.

In the U.S. alone.

We build our lives around comfort and safety and ease. We feel entitled to painless living. Both physically and emotionally. We will go to great lengths to avoid our interior pain—our sadness, grief, powerlessness, fear, despair, shame, and anger. As Carl Jung said, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul.”

But what is the psychological equivalent of a painkilling pill?

I think we numb our psychological pain with myth.

By myth, I mean the ever-so-slightly deceptive stories we tell ourselves. About ourselves. About other people. About the world we live in. Our personal myths are the beliefs that protect us from the pain of life.*

Young men will tell themselves they love the bachelor lifestyle, so they don’t have to enter into the sweaty-browed risk of real intimacy and their own sense of inadequacy.

Young women will tell themselves they are in charge—and every weekend it’s the same bed but a different man—so they never have to acknowledge how empty it feels when they are finally alone.

We put doctors on pedestals, so we don’t have to fully feel the terror of the disease.

People who have given up on this life will survive it by adopting a set of rules that will guarantee there place in another life.

Perhaps (and this one haunts me), some of us may even write blog posts about redemption and compassion, so we can feel satisfied with our effort and avoid some of the painful work of love in our own lives.

And our myths protect us against the details of our story that feel too painful to acknowledge: the haunting vacancy in the eyes of our parents, the desperate race for worth in a family who dressed up competition as nurturance, the bitter loneliness of the schoolyard taunts, the aching regret about sleeping with that guy freshman year, the nagging emptiness of a paycheck with no meaning, or the walking-on-eggshells way of life in a household dominated by one person’s anger.

Our myths keep the pain of reality at bay, and so they sustain us with a false sense of freedom.

But what if we’re like puppies, chasing our tails inside the comfort of a grassy yard, thinking we’re free, when we’re actually imprisoned? What if our pain is like an invisible electrical fence, keeping us penned in and depriving us of a vast world and the freedom to fully live in it? What if our personal myths are just Kibbles ‘n Bits—pacifying morsels that keep us from deciding to walk through our pain into the freedom of fully living?

(Read the rest of this post here.)

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