Redesigning Old Memories
Have you ever noticed how sometimes the most simple discussions can bring about the most unexpected moments of clarity? While hanging out with a friend a few weeks ago, he reminded me of an old memory we shared. He is a high school teacher, and several years ago he had a student in his class with very bad teeth and very little money. She needed serious help, and he felt so strongly about helping her, that he paid me to do her dental treatment for her. As we reminisced about how amazing that story was, I realized that I had almost forgotten all about her and what the 3 of us accomplished together. As he retold a story to me that I had already lived, I felt happy… and, frankly, a little surprised. It was like watching a really touching scene in a movie. It was so heartwarming to imagine these 2 characters coming together to help a girl with no other options.
For a moment it was as if someone else was the protagonist in this story. It was some other lady who had significantly altered this young girl’s life. It wasn’t me.
He showed me a picture of her now, and she is a beautiful young lady with a beautiful smile! This whole time he was the hero. I was paid to help her, but he was the one who went above and beyond to help a young girl have a better life, a better future. As we looked at her picture, he emphatically said to me, “look at that smile. You changed her life. You did that. Imagine how different her life would have been.” True. Her life, confidence, and future all would have been very different had we not stepped in.
So why was I so surprised?
I was surprised to feel genuine happiness when I thought of her. It wasn’t fear or worry or stress like most of the times I thought of my old dental stories. No, it was pure satisfaction. I had forgotten the warmth and joy that moments like this brought to me over my years of practicing dentistry, even moments as significant as this one. Over time I became detached from this positive experience, and it almost entirely dissolved from my memory. What I did was no big deal. I was paid to do my job. But in that moment my friend opened my eyes, and I had my moment of clarity. For the first time in many years I could actually see the beauty in how I was able to help her. We are often slow to reward ourselves with praise, but seeing “me” as a “her” in an imaginary movie in my head allowed me to give myself a break. Regardless of whether I was paid or it was my job, I helped change her life in a very profound way.
I was in so much pain at that time and hated every moment of my work life so much, that I couldn’t even see the good that I was creating for others.
I was merely surviving. I couldn’t notice how my work helped others. I mean, I know at times I felt proud and fulfilled by my work and how it touched lives like hers, but the rough times overshadowed the good times. Most of the wins disappeared entirely from my reality and ultimately from my memory. I was drowning in my unhappiness, and I couldn’t see past it. How ironic that I missed this, since I went into this career precisely for moments like these. I can’t change that now, nor do I think I could have at the time. I tried, but I was too bogged down in all the negative crap to see the other side. At least today I can understand why that is.
When you’re hurting so much, sometimes your pain is so strong that you can’t see anything else.
Clearly, I couldn’t. It wasn’t until the latter years in my career that I discovered how little I wanted to help any dental patients. Let me be clear. It’s not that I didn’t want to help these people, but I didn’t want to do the stuff that was required to help these people. My career coach and I often discussed how important it is to be of service to others for career satisfaction. I should have been so happy as I had the ultimate job in terms of providing a great, noble service to others. But when I thought about being of service to my patients, I felt resentful. I didn’t want to be of service to them. I wanted to be anywhere else in the world than in the office digging them out of their dental problems. I only helped them because it was the right thing to do. I had to. It was out of integrity and duty, not because it filled their lives and my life with joy.
I was officially jaded.
For a long time I struggled to understand these feelings because I had always believed that I liked and cared about people, and I thought I wanted to help them have better lives. It just didn’t make sense. How could I so adamantly not want to help others? I felt guilty and embarrassed. I thought I was a bad, selfish person. A phony. I never admitted any of this to anyone. But today I understand it: my pain prevented me from seeing.
Today I understand that the best and most we can give to others is when it comes from our own heart and from our own joy.
We can go around doing what is right, or best, or what needs to be done. But I believe that what’s behind that counts too. What are our intentions? What energy are we putting into the world? How good is it if we are in some way harming ourselves in the act of helping others? Is it possible to live in a world in which we can not only give without harming ourselves, but actually give to others while nurturing ourselves?
I know my answer to that.
I have had this post written for weeks now, but I just couldn’t find where these thoughts were taking me. I kept asking myself what was my point here. But I was stuck, unable to finish this post. Until last night when it clicked, and I had my second moment of clarity. I saw a speaker at an event, and she asked the group, “what are you truly passionate about right now?” As she so ardently described her passion and what drives her, it suddenly became so clear to me. My passion is to help inspire, motivate, and even guide those who need a change. I’ll admit my soft spot is for those who want out of dentistry, but it’s not limited to just that. It’s anyone who is living the wrong life. It’s those that spend their days wishing they could be somewhere else doing something else; those that most likely resent helping others because that very act causes so much pain for themselves. As I listened to the speaker describe her passion, mine reignited in me like I had discovered it for the first time. And suddenly now I see what a miracle it is to be of service to others… on my terms.