Tuesday, August 23, 2005

On Really Becoming a Dentist

It happened at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, August 22, 2005. Now, I think I would have preferred it happened at a little different time—like when he was drilling in someone else’s mouth—but it wasn’t my choice.

The dentist here in Sac City is a pretty good one. He’s young (only two years out of dental school), and outgoing. While he’s working, he’s chatting and joking with his assistant, sometimes singing songs, and generally having a good time. (One of the assistants told me once that sometimes she forgets she’s actually working, because they have so much fun there.)

But my dentist really became a dentist yesterday afternoon, while he was giving me a filling. While he was working on the cavity (which turned out to be worse than it had looked on the x-ray), he remarked that one of his professors had told him and his classmates they’d come out of school with the facts, and skills, and concepts they needed to do the work—but they wouldn’t really be dentists until they learned to follow their intuition as they cared for their patients. (His intuition has led him to want to drill another one of my teeth, but that’s a story for another day.)

That’s the way with just about everything we might do, I think. When we first learn to do something, we have all the steps written down, or we follow the recipe or the instructions exactly. But eventually there comes a point when we’re comfortable enough with the basics that we can apply them to new situations, or improvise on them, or know without looking it up what’s needed in a particular time or circumstance.

But for us to get to that point, we have to learn and practice the basics. We have to follow enough recipes to know how things are supposed to taste, what ingredients do what, and so forth. We have to have read enough x-rays to know what we’re supposed to see before we can recognize when something isn’t right. We have to have seen and identified a lot of common, everyday birds at our feeders before we’re able to recognize when an unusual one appears. As I used to tell the students I tutored at the English lab at my college, you have to know the rules of grammar before you know how and when to bend or break them.

It’s the same with our faith. We have to know the Bible stories so we can interpret our own stories in light of God’s action in the world. We have to learn what Jesus did do before we can answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” We have to know the commandments before we can figure out how to apply them to our own lives. Religious education is very important, because it builds the foundation. But the moment we really become Christians is when the habits and the stories and the instructions of our faith have become so ingrained that we don’t even have to think before we act in Christlike ways.