on wisdom


When I was a little kid, I asked why they were called wisdom teeth.

I don’t really remember why we were talking about wisdom teeth, but I remember the answer: they came in when you were old enough to start being wise. I’m almost 25, and while that doesn’t really feel like I’ve reached a wise age (unless it’s the wiseass age), I’d still like wisdom teeth to teach me something about the human condition.

There are five stages in the Kubler-Ross model of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And sure, maybe busting out the grief cycle is a little extreme for a routine oral surgery. But there’s a reason people have nightmares about losing teeth– it’s a metaphor for death. Without teeth, we’re toothless: on a primitive level, we can’t hunt and feed ourselves well–we become the weak in the herd. It’s a change in yourself that you will never be able to undo, one more sign of memento mori as you leave teenage invincibility

It’s always bothered me that anger is in the middle of the cycle.

I don’t think that anger is just one of many opposites to happiness. Look at any middle school emotion chart, and in all those smiley faces expressing different feelings, there’s maybe one or two that look okay/socially acceptable to be. Everything else is an uncomfortable contortion of features. In my experience, emotions are less polar and more overlapping. Anger doesn’t preclude happiness, and to me, it’s never been its opposite.

But still, we get taught that there’s a very limited number of okay moods to be and that everything else is negative, is something you don’t want to be because it is Not Happy.

I like anger. Maybe it’s something about being a girl that makes people think your anger is not the same kind of anger they’re talking about. Or maybe it’s just that happiness and anger are ingrained as such opposites that it seems impossible for them to coexist.

But they do. Tintin‘s Captain Haddock is hilariously angry but, I’d like to think, is at his heart also a happy person. He just wants things done a certain way (preferably his way, aka the best way, and with whiskey). When both those conditions are met, he’s on cloud nine. Professor Calculus also toes this line– a type A, obsessive personality who is happily whimsical up until the point where someone calls him a goat or intimates that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. If my French comic book references aren’t reaching you, then think about Stubb in Moby Dick.

When I first thought about passing through the anger part of the grief cycle when we learnt it in 9th grade religion class, I thought it meant losing a integral part of myself. (And if loss of the self doesn’t spiral you straight into depression stage, I don’t know what will.)

But having gone through denial (my wisdom teeth are already in, this tooth chart on the internet is just wrong), bargaining (I’ve had a root canal, I brush my teeth three times a day, this can’t be happening), depression (I am going to have to relive the most terrifying experience of my life), acceptance was a surprise.

I’m not not-angry– it’s just a different flavor of anger. After googling “human teeth diagram” (as you do when you’re a tech-savvy twenty-something living away from home) and counting my own out, I was angry in the sense that I was frustrated I couldn’t change what was happening to me.

And that I think is what the Kubler-Ross model is talking about. Anger as rage at powerlessness, refusing to accept what you know in your gut is true. Frustration.

I’m frustrated at the human body for being so poorly designed that its own teeth run into each other, and I’m ticked off that us humans, as possessors of bodies, have not figured out a better way to deal with wisdom teeth by now. That’s the part of anger that I’ve moved past. Whatever happens, the teeth still have to come out and that’s not changing.

What I haven’t moved past is anger at my fear. Vita brevis, ars longa, right? Maybe fear is always going to be my first reaction with dental stuff, or any surgery– it is for a lot of people. I don’t like it. Fear is weakness, and being scared of a dentist, aka someone whose job is to help you, is a stupid fear.

But, at the same time I’m happy for the perspective, happy I get what people mean when they say to stay hungry, stay foolish. You have a whole lot of things to do, and a much shorter amount of time to do them in. It’s not something I like about being human, but it’s something I’d rather know than not.

a few hours post-op

I got a very kind, thoughtful email from one of my professors wishing me “good luck with the teeth removal.”

I’m working on my second chocolate frosty since my wisdom teeth came out. It’s slow going since I can’t open my mouth much, but it’s happening. The night before the surgery I stayed up until 4am working on a manuscript and annoying a too-loyal Siberian Husky with a few hours of motivational heavy metal, so now the wolf dog and I are kicking back on the couch again, me with this frosty and him curled up into a little ball, sleeping it off.

Most of what I’ve learned from this is that no one really knows what to say about having your wisdom teeth out. My officemates and CPs shared their experiences, my little brother told me about how much blood he coughed up, and my grandmother phoned to express her well wishes and wonder why the Good Lord gave us extra teeth. I said that maybe the Good Lord was just looking out for the dental hygienists in His flock, but she encouraged me to think in less worldly terms.

“It’s just something that happens to everyone,” my mom said in the oral surgeon’s.

“Great, wisdom teeth and death.” I said. “Thanks, I am so less depressed now.”

“That’s not what I meant.” She smiled, then checked again to make sure I’d taken my contacts out before the surgery. “You’re going to be fine. Everybody has to go through this. It’s part of being human.”

My dad had been pretty silent on the wisdom teeth front, and I didn’t really mind. Between us, Dad and I make up the most oral surgery and dental weirdness in the household, and I took his not bringing up my teeth as a sign of stoic respect. Warrior to warrior, the last, grim salute before you ride into battle.

But still, since it’s a human thing and since I try to catalogue human things, after I got home from the surgery I decided to ask him. I knew my mother’s story, my grandmother’s, my little brother’s, and the ones my friends online and in the office had shared. I wanted to know his.

“They never came in.” My dad shrugged over some diagrams for a new research study he’s putting together at work.


“Yeah. My wisdom teeth just never grew in. Never got ’em. They’re not even on my x-rays. I didn’t want to mention that until after you were finished getting yours out.” He ruffled my hair. “But I’m proud of you for being brave, kiddo.”

Right now, I’m planning out tomorrow’s soft food banquet, scowl-smiling at the nine different, dessert-flavored varieties of yogurt I’ll be dining on for the next few days. If I’ve learned anything from this, if there is wisdom in these wisdom teeth, it’s that I’m pretty damn lucky.

I’m lucky I have friends who tell me about their own hilarious mishaps with these things, classmates who cover my recitations during my x-rays, professors who take the time to wish me well, a mother who trails after me with gauze and hits up every smoothie place in town for chocolate shakes, and a family who’s 100% cool with me locking myself up in the den to make terrible things happen to this poor fictional guy as I recover.

I’m making art and studying what I love. I have a fridge full of yogurt, a very clingy husky, and know some of the coolest people around. And for all that, and all the stories, thanks.

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