In law school, I was taught that to change someone’s behavior, you need to appeal to a very basic, very powerful emotion. And there is no more basic, no more powerful emotion, than fear. If you can scare someone enough, you can get them to willingly submit to all sorts of stuff.
I have all my wisdom teeth. Thanks to a technically skilled orthodontist who tended to me when I was a teenager, my jaw and teeth got aligned very well before my wisdom teeth erupted, and they came in straight and painlessly. I should have them until I die, unless either bodily insult or decay takes those teeth from me. Decay, like the kind that required a filling earlier tonight, is likely — my small mouth and hair-trigger gag reflex all conspire to make flossing back there well nigh impossible.
Add to that the ego-diminishing problem that I have what feels like a zero tolerance policy for pain in my teeth and an epinephrine allergy. My last dental work needed four cheek injections of anesthetic, which left my mouth, jaw, and shoulder enduringly sore. I needed 600 mg of ibuprofen, four times a day, just to be able to open my mouth wide enough to eat a sandwich for lunch, for about three weeks afterwards. The whole time thinking of my mother’s stories of how she could endure no-anesthetic drilling when she manifested one of her astonishingly rare cavities.
The dentist told me that the dental chair was not the place to be a hero, but when “Oh, I just close my eyes and think of a pleasant vacation” is the myth to which your own behavior is mentally compared, it’s hard not to take a hit to my pride as well as my body. So as for tonight, the work was on the other side of my mouth and it’s now six and a half hours later and the entire left side of my face is still numb and I’m still wondering if somewhere along the way I’ve bitten my tongue and I’ve probably been pretty unpleasant company to my wife through no fault of hers.
Sure, I know there’s people with no dental insurance at all. There’s people who even if they can afford the care, nevertheless don’t understand the importance of taking care of your mouth, or who don’t think it’s worth the unpleasantness which I’m going through right now. So maybe you’re not terribly sympathetic that I had a bad experience, as I always do have a bad experience despite the very best efforts — and they are truly commendable efforts — of an entire office of professionals to make the process as not-unpleasant as they possibly can. My present discomfort, and the lingering after-effects of it, are rich people problems.
But, on a more psychological level, why do it? The answer is fear. If this is my reaction to getting a filling, it’s pretty clear to me that if I let a tooth go to the point that I need a root canal, I’ll need to request general anesthetic. And I might not get it. The gagging associated with my daily dental hygiene routine notwithstanding, I’m never going to let it get that far.
That’s fear talking. I don’t fear an ordinary filling so much as I dread it. But I fear the prospect of a root canal. So I will willingly submit to the icy-cold, needle-like intensity of pain that is involved in what I go through on a night like this, skipping dinner and depressing my mood, so as to avoid having to confront the fear of something even worse. All the money, all the pain, all the dread, and gagging myself to good hygiene every morning — it must all be better than a root canal.