(This is not dentist office decor. It is orthodontist office decor. I forgot to take a picture at the dentist's office.)
Today, I'm sitting at the dentist's office, waiting for a routine cleaning.
It is hardly original to reflect on how similar the two experiences are, but I'm as inclined to be as unoriginal as anybody when I'm cowering in existential dread for the second time in the same week.
In The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas says--I am paraphrasing--that human wisdom is encompassed by two words: wait and hope. In general, I agree with this notion, but it must be admitted that the wait in the dentist's office is not particularly conducive to hope...
...and as I penned that last sentence, I heard my name called.
Now, it is hours later, and my general sense of well-being has completely returned, aided by a nice slow-cooker dinner and some time to relax (aside: does anybody else stress out over what they are eating on the day of a dentist's appointment--e.g., "No, not the popcorn! And I'd better not eat anything sticky..." to the point where you sort of stop bothering to eat at all? Please tell me it's not just me). The similarity between confession and the dentist experience did continue to manifest itself: how the waiting is followed by the awareness that both the dentist and the priest can easily tell just how badly you're failing to take care of things properly, how time seems to slow to a crawl, how you promise to do better (and you mean it, really, in both places, and then...) and how a sense of good humor returns to you and stays there until a) you sin or b) you remember that you've got another appointment in a month to replace a filling that has unaccountably gone missing.
Both the priest and the dentist want what's best for you. The priest in the confessional wants you to turn from sin and amend your life, and he knows quite well that you're not going to be perfect about it any time soon--but it's worth doing anyway. The dentist knows quite well that if you're a non-flosser you will continue to be a non-flosser, and that even if you make tons of progress and become a sometimes-flosser you may not get the benefits of that so long as you continue to consume sugar in the quantities you do (especially when so much of it comes in the form of carbonated liquid)--and yet, it's worth doing, so he will continue to ask you to do it. In a sense both the priest and the dentist embody that best sort of hope: the sort that sees the potential of the human being who in spite of his or her own worst nature and least beneficial impulses is still capable of changing for the better.
The priest and the dentist know the value of the hope Dumas spoke of. When I am in line for confession or in the waiting room at the dentist's office, the only thing I may be hoping for is that the experience will go by quickly; yet the kindly people seeing to my teeth--or my soul--have a better hope for me, the hope that in spite of everything I will pray a bit better, floss a bit more, and try a little harder to do good and avoid evil, whether in the moral realm or in the soda aisle.