Hello! My name is Ben.
Anna told me I could write whatever I want on here, so I hope you find my, “Top 50 Dad Jokes,” list insightful and worthwhile.
In all seriousness, thank you, Anna, for inviting me to be your guest here. I remember listening to you tell me your vision for this blog the last time I was down in Nashville. I’m so glad you made it. It’s been a pleasure to read, and I’m honored that you thought of me to contribute.
With that, here’s a story:
A few months ago, my dentist told me that she wanted to publish a paper about my teeth.
I said, “Okay. That will be $1,200. Who do I send the bill to?”
Just kidding. But I was sure thinking it! Maybe I would have said it had there not been an uncomfortable amount of metal instruments poking around the inside of my mouth. Let's be real though, having someone tell you they could write about your dental deficiencies in a scientific journal is not exciting news.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I’m in the same seat for another check-up. In the middle of having my gums nearly scraped off by a large needle, the front-office lady pokes her head into the room to inform me that I’m no longer covered on my parent's insurance (i.e. I’m about to pay WAY too much money for someone to brush my teeth with a fancy toothbrush). I'm self-employed, so relying on the parents for insurance is key for me in this stage of life. I start panicking while she advises me to "call your mother, and figure that out,” then walks out of the room.
Adult life: call your mother, and figure that out.
My dentist wasn't intrigued by my chompers because they were crooked or anything. I actually didn't even need braces as a kid (you're welcome, mom and dad!). The problem was that I grit my teeth. Even better, I apparently grit my teeth in a way that they've never seen before. Wow. What can I say? Gotta love feeling unique.
I really did not need an uninsured dentist appointment to tell me that I grit my teeth. I know I do it, and I know why, too.
I recently finished reading The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner. It’s a fairly short memoir about the theologian’s early life. In the book, he paints a portrait of his Grandma Buechner, describing her as a tough German woman with, “Little patience with weakness, softness, sickness. Even gentleness made her uncomfortable...” Now, this could probably be seen as the antithesis of what it means to be a grandmother, but his went through a lot of tragedy in her life, including losing her son to suicide. But even at her lowest points, she would not break down and show her pain. Rather, she sat in her chair by the window and "stared her doom right in the face." He truly loved and respected his grandmother for doing the best with what she had, but later in the book, Buechner reflects on the poignant truth behind her indomitable approach to living:
"But when it comes to putting broken lives back together — when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls— the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have in you to do— to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst— is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own."
Life is beautiful, but sometimes it bites hard with a sudden loss, or a giant hurdle. I’m preaching to the choir here, because we all know that. We’ve felt it. More often, though, I think that life weighs us down slowly. Silently. It’s often a culmination of things. I don't know what it is for you, but Michigan Februaries do that to me almost every year. The landscape is shrouded in a grayness that makes it feel like the entire sky is hovering just a few inches above my head. Maybe it’s a little bit of seasonal depression. Mostly, it just feels like a subtle heaviness in the back of my mind, and when that is coupled with the semi-adrift feeling that is being a twenty-three-year-old, I start to feel it in the soreness of my constantly clenched jaw.
Like Buechner’s grandmother, I often find myself gritting my teeth and clenching my fists when life gets tough, or I’m venturing into unknown territory. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. In fact, I think it’s in our nature to defend ourselves from exposing our own vulnerability. Sometimes it feels more noble to grit my teeth than expose my weakness. Have I become so desperate in my quest for control, that I’ve blindly chosen to rule the kingdom of my own problems? Because, I’ll tell you right now: that kingdom sucks.
Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. But before he did that, Jesus wept. He wept in front of everybody there. He wept with everybody there. It’s always baffled me that Jesus didn’t just quick bring him back to life. You know, fix the issue and spare everybody the weeping part.
After that dentist appointment (and mostly because I’m not trying to drop $600 on a fancy mouth guard) I put this sticky note on my computer at work (yes, that’s a Home Alone reference). With Buechner’s words echoing around in my head, I have come to the conclusion that this command to “stop grinding your teeth” has little to do with a physical action, and everything to do with my spiritual state. My stubborn, deeply introverted self wants nothing more than to prevail on my own. I grit my teeth. I figured it out. I overcame it. It’s just pride.
People who are a lot wiser than me (like famous theologians and dentists) have challenged me to start trying to check my pride at the door when I enter a trusted community. I think it’s important to find a group of people who are harmoniously working to become, “transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.” I don’t know what that space looks like for you. For me, it’s a group of eight guys who get together once every week. We all take time to share the joy and the heaviness within each person. We bring scripture and we bring stories (sometimes we bring beer). We invest ourselves– our brokenness– into that group every week and, at least for me, the return has been a growing realization that life is not intended to be merely survived while gritting your teeth.
My dentist is going to be ecstatic.