Being a dentist has got to be one of the most demoralizing jobs in the world, right up there with standing on a street corner in a sandwich board. First of all, you hurt people all day, and people are scared of you. Second of all, mouths are kind of gross — there’s a reason people kiss with their eyes shut. Third, half your tools are poisons — fluoride, and industrial waste product; mercury, a heavy metal; estrogen-mimicking composites — and the other half are strange little torture tools. (Last week, when I was at the dentist, I had to lie there while my dentist sharpened his tools. Scrape, scrape, scrape….) I could go on.
But the biggest reason dentistry must be demoralizing is this: every day you tell your patients to do just a few small things: brush, floss, eat fewer butter toffees and cocoa puffs. It is such a small thing to ask — nothing time consuming or expensive or revolutionary. Just a few tiny hygienic rituals. BUT PEOPLE STILL CAN’T DO IT. Sure, most of us brush and floss most of the time, but rarely can we live up to that dental utopia our dentists dream of, where plaque does not form, gums never bleed, and no one even thinks about chocolate-covered raisins. So each day, the poor dentists are there in the trenches, begging us to do these tiny, impossible things, and growing wearier and wearier behind their perfect smiles. But it gets worse — dental patients are the responsible ones. Out there, on the sidewalks and highways of our nation, are all the people who ignore their dental reminder postcards, or who never receive dental postcards at all. There are people out there who never have anyone inspect the food particles stuck between their teeth: people without dentists. Do they trouble dentists’ sleep? Do dentists dream of standing, tall as the stature of liberty, blazing toothbrush raised, and saying to the unflossed masses, “Brush, floss….” Or have they given up hope, knowing no matter how many times they say those magic words, tooth decay will continue.
If people can’t even floss regularly, how will we ever do any of the difficult things that need to be done to make a better society? It’s a daunting thing to consider, there with only your latex-free gloves between you and some stranger’s badly-brushed enamel.
I wonder, though, what if the request was bigger? What if it really seemed to matter? Then would people do it?