I went to the orthodontist today to get a fixed retainer removed. It was put in about a decade ago, when I was a teenager, right after I had my braces removed. It was supposed to keep my bottom teeth in place, but after a decade in my mouth it started wearing out. Last week I had to get it repaired and more recently another part of the retainer broke off, making repair impossible and requiring the removal of the entire fixed retainer.
Why am I telling you this? I'm telling you this because I had a really interesting insight during my orthodontist visit, specifically as he was removing the excess adhesive (which bonded the retainer to my teeth) and polishing the back of my teeth after removing the retainer.
I am not afraid of going to the dentist at all, but I do understand that dental work performed with no anesthesia can be excruciatingly painful. My parents, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, tell me how painful such work was as they did not have anesthesia then (or they did not have access to it). Obviously, with no anesthesia, people likely neglected dental work. Additionally, I experienced dental drilling when I was a young child with relatively little anesthesia (I am not quite sure why) and I remember that it was very painful, even though some anesthesia was used. It is a very unique and particular type of pain and it is extremely uncomfortable. So, I knew that drilling teeth with no anesthesia at all is extremely painful from stories and a past experience with relatively little anesthesia. With this knowledge and with this past experience I sat down to get my retainer removed.
The orthodontist told me that he wouldn’t use any anesthesia because he wouldn’t be drilling into the teeth or doing anything that would hurt. He told me he would just be removing glue from the surface of the teeth after he removed the retainer. He removed the retainer and then he began removing all of the excess adhesive with a dental tool that looked very similar to the tools that dentists used on me when I had fillings in the past. I am a layperson when it comes to dentistry, so I assumed it was the same tool and I assumed it was capable of drilling deep into a tooth.
As he began removing the adhesive from the back of my teeth I felt a tiny bit of pain. I wouldn't even call it pain. It was more of an annoyance, but I knew very well that the minor annoyance could turn into excruciating pain should the dentist go deeper into the tooth. I thought to myself, what about when he finishes removing the adhesive? Then the drill will be touching the actual tooth and there will no longer be a layer of adhesive between the drill and the tooth. Will that hurt? It will likely hurt!
I didn't say anything while he was drilling because I trusted the orthodontist, but the annoyance increased and I felt a very slight tinge of pain. Now I was a little nervous, but I still trusted the orthodontist because I knew he worked with children and that he likely had an abundance of anesthesia. He would likely use it if he felt that there was even a chance of pain as medical professionals are overly cautious when it comes to these things today.
When he took a break from the drilling and the adhesive removal, I took the opportunity to ask him about my concern because I was pretty curious. I told him what I thought would happen and he told me that it wasn't possible. He said that what he was using was a rubber drill tip, not a metal drill tip capable of lacerating and drilling into the tooth. He said that even when the tip touches the tooth with no adhesive, which it would do soon once all of the adhesive was removed, it still wouldn't hurt. My outlook on the entire procedure immediately changed in an instant and I was shocked at this.
When he began drilling again the minor pain went away completely. Obviously I still felt the same sensation I felt before, but now I knew that it would never be different than it was now. I knew that the drill was not even capable of causing the pain which I was afraid of and that made the entire thing not just a little bit more tolerable, but turned the whole thing into a completely different experience. I now wanted him to continue with the procedure despite the light discomfort because I wanted the back of my teeth to be as smooth as possible and for all of the adhesive to be removed.
I know this is a simple example, but I cannot ignore what it has taught me. My assumptions played an enormous role in my experience at the orthodontist. I felt the same sensation (maybe even a greater physical discomfort after I found out), but something changed. The sensation in the beginning was combined with a certain fear that it would increase and an assumption that the tool that was being used could also grind deep into my tooth. After I learned about what was going on, my old assumption died and was replaced with a different assumption, this time a more accurate one. That accurate assumption allowed me to understand that the tool had a rubber tip and was incapable of drilling into the tooth. It was not the same tool that dentists use to drill into teeth to fill cavities.
What can we learn from my experience? We learn that assumptions matter a lot. I've always felt this before, but my experience at my orthodontist really brought this home for me. It was an almost profound experience in terms of how quickly I learned and internalized something pretty important. We won't always be able to change our assumptions and when we get more educated and our assumptions do change, we might realize that our original assumptions gave us more peace of mind. However, whenever we're suffering in one of endless ways we can suffer, we should take a minute to think about whether or not our suffering is caused in part by an assumption that we have. We should then seek to understand why we have that assumption and really do our best to understand whether or not it is rational, correct, and true or whether it is only based on ignorance and our own limited past experiences. An assumption can act like a pair of glasses that color everything else we see in the world. Change the glasses and you can change your view of the world.
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