Going to the dentist

Psalm 32

Apparently 1 in 4 of us are afraid of going to the dentist. That’s a staggeringly high proportion of the population. It may be a hangover from times past, when dentists had a reputation for barbarity; there was something about the smell of antiseptic, the feeling of helplessness as one sat in the chair – and, most of all, the noise and vibration of the dreaded drill – that seemed calculated to induce a state of paralytic terror. Some things have changed for the better, but the cultural perception is slow to catch up. Most people with odontophobia experience just a feeling of dread or mild anxiety (not least, these days, about the potential cost of the treatment) but some are so severely affected that they cannot even go anywhere near the dental surgery. Until… after years of neglect, a decayed tooth becomes so painful that the need for relief eventually becomes greater than the fear.

There are other fears that can ruin our lives, sometimes catastrophically. Few things in modern life are as devastating as a diagnosis of cancer. But how many people with worrying symptoms put off the visit to the doctor for so long that by the time they do eventually pluck up the courage, the cancer has gone past the point at which it could have been cured? Phenomenal advances in the treatment of HIV infection mean that nobody now need die from it – but a depressingly high proportion of cases are still being picked up only at an advanced stage, when it is often too late, because people are afraid of getting tested.

It’s not only patients who fear taking action to deal with a problem, What about the health professional who has committed a medical error? Along with the horror of realising that you have made the wrong diagnosis or prescribed the wrong treatment comes a powerful primeval urge to cover up one’s failure, to hide the consequences – even, in some cases, to falsify the patient’s notes in the hope that no-one will find out. It takes considerable professionalism (and moral courage) to resist this instinctive reaction, to own up and to apologise.

‘Confession is good for the soul’. It is certainly good for the doctor-patient relationship (as the medical defence societies continually remind their members). So why do we find it so difficult? It seems to be part of human nature to cover up our mistakes and imperfections, and to maintain a pretence that all is well – just because we find the truth about ourselves too painful or embarrassing to contemplate. But so long as the problem remains hidden, it cannot be dealt with.
“When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.’ (Psalm 32:3)
Like a rotten tooth, a guilty secret festers away, slowly poisoning our character and our relationships, until eventually it becomes so obvious that something is wrong that it cannot be ignored any longer. And by this stage, irreversible damage may have been done.

But what if… what if we had the courage to act earlier? Confession is hard; it means exposing ourselves to blame and possibly to anger. It means ‘eating humble pie’ (which is a most unappetising dish to anyone with a normal sense of self-worth). It might mean lifting the lid off a whole can of worms that we would rather have left undisturbed.

And yet… the process of filling or extracting a tooth may be unpleasant, but it cures the toothache!
“Then I acknowledged my sin to You
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, ‘I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.’
And You forgave
the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5)
Think how much better you will feel afterwards, and do what you know you ought to do – you won’t regret it!

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