Pondering Dentition and Comfort

I lost a filling on Friday afternoon, just before the weekend began. The filling came off the top of one of my back molars, exposing a craggy corner and a sharp inside edge along the top of the tooth. The tooth itself doesn’t hurt, but it is sharp and makes unavoidable contact with the side of my tongue, which makes eating, drinking, talking – basically having a mouth – sort of unpleasant.

My temporary (and easily remedied) dental situation is not in the category of suffering. At most, it is an irritation, an inconvenience. It is not unlike having a cold virus, or stomachache, or the countless other garden-variety things that go along with being human. But it causes me to reflect that we have grown quite accustomed to comfort in this age. We are long from the days when privilege meant something like the false wooden (or horse, depending on the legend you choose) teeth of George Washington.

For me, the carious dentition of past generations adequately nullifies any romance in the idea of living in another historical era. Since I can’t seem to make it one weekend without whining about a lost filling, what does being present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence matter if I must endure a pernicious bolus of infection building behind a more-decayed-than-not stump of a tooth, causing nearly excruciating and unremitting pain, and the only remedy involves the services of a barber who uses a rusty pair of iron pliers to extract the tooth — no painkiller, no sedation, no antibiotics? Exactly how did people live then?

As Catholics, we are called to resist the inclination to despair when we experience physical or mental problems. In fact, we can receive spiritual gifts — a merit to enduring what must be endured — for the sake of Christian witness. This is “redemptive suffering,” loosely described as the spiritual practice of offering what we prefer not to experience so that it can be united with Christ’s own sacrifice.

Redemptive suffering clashes with the secular worldview, where the purpose of life is to attain material and physical comfort and to avoid what naturally accompanies human frailty. It is simply a matter of checking in to the best hospital. Thus, we see an elevation of medicine and science to a near religion, a church for which faith in bodily healing fulfills a priority on the highest order of existence. And yet such faith is established upon a promise that can never be completely fulfilled, unless we cease being human altogether.

The problem for the secular worldview is unavoidable: what happens when things go “wrong”? If the apex of human fulfillment is defined as the avoidance of discomfort, what becomes of us when our efforts fall short? In reducing ourselves to mere seekers of happiness and avoiders of things that make us unhappy, we are nothing more than emotional animals. We dehumanize ourselves and others because there is no way of living that fully avoids suffering, because it would avoid what is inherent in being human.

Christ himself suffered, as did His Blessed Mother, as did St. Paul, as did St. Peter, and so on, ad infinitem. A full embrace of Jesus requires an acceptance that suffering carries something of value in our journey toward God. The great “why” of human suffering remains a mystery, but we can see that suffering and comfort are both temporary. Faith is meant to carry us through both conditions.

In contrast to the church of modern medicine, the Catholic Church is first a hospital for souls. A miraculous physical healing is meant to be accompanied by a spiritual healing, drawing us closer to Christ. From there we are not meant to stay put, but to follow Him from where we are to where He leads.

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