Running out the door to an appointment at the dentist's office this morning, I grabbed a paperback small enough to stuff in the back pocket of my jeans - a copy of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, which I first read in my late teens. In the dentist's waiting room, I reflected on the Greek story that Camus borrowed to define his sense of the "absurd" as the field in which we are required to discover a purpose strong enough to live for. Sisyphus, an otherwise obscure figure who may have been a hero or a highwayman (or both) was punished by the gods (for an offence whose nature is also disputed) by being compelled to push a huge boulder to the top of a mountain. Every time he reaches the top, the rock rollls back down to the bottom and Sisyphus is required to start all over again.
I could feel the soft bulge of The Myth of Sisyphus in my back pocket, as I settled into the dentist's chair. I was scheduled for a long session: root canal work, followed by clinical crown lengthening, which would involve peeling back the tissue around the stump of a tooth from which I had recently lost a crown, to provide more structure for a new crown to be set. I have been going to the same dentist for over 15 years. When I first came in for a root canal and declined all anesthetics, she was incredulous. "Just let me know when you change your mind," she responded. At the end of that surgery, I opened my eyes to find several of the staff gathered in close."They want to know how you do that," said the dentist. "Oh, while you were doing your thing I was an African lion sunning himself in the savannah. I was aware of you fleetingly, as an irritating long-beaked bird that was picking my teeth. Nothing worth any real attention."
I survived further root canals and oral surgery in the same way, by switching my attention to a separate reality. At the start of a long and messy tooth extraction, I transferred my attention to the pink sand of Bermuda, and to swimming in the warm waters of a pirate cay. When the tooth shattered and a different dentist started digging out the fragments, I was unable to shut out the pain. My meditation became different. I made myself go into the pain, into its raw savage furnace, and find some form of strength there to get me through, again without any type of anesthetic.
When I was deathly ill as a child, coughing into my pillow at night so as not to disturb my mother, I learned to shift my focus in these and other ways in order to survive extremes of pain. This was a survival mechanism. It was also, perhaps, something that was bred into me, as a Scots-Australian from a military family, in which men, by and large, did not complain about pain.
Yet long before today I had come to recognize that ignoring the complaints of the body isn't necessarily very smart, or very evolved. The body has its needs, one of which is to have its distress signals heard before problems get serious.
At 9:45 AM today, my regular dentist came in to the place of pain with her regular cheery greeting and family update. Then she said (knowing me well by now), "No Novocaine, right?"
"No Novocaine," I confirmed. This time, she did not point out that I could always change my mind.
The work began. The dentist explained that it might be hard to find enough space on the stump of my broken tooth for the clamp she needed to apply. "I'm afraid you won't enjoy it too much if I have to clamp the gums." That's exactly what she had to do. I felt exquisite pain as the sharp metal cut into my gums. I began to ready my mind to travel somewhere away from here, perhaps this time to the city of Delft, as it was in the time of Vermeer, the master of light whose paintings had delighted me at the Met in New York on Sunday. Yet another image came first. I saw a picador in a bull-ring, tormenting a strong but weary bull by jabbing him again and again, drawing blood. I recognized myself in this scene, as both characters in the ring.
As a counterpoint to the stabbing pain of the clamp, I again felt the soft pressure of the pocket book under my rear end. I could not escape the message coming to me both from my body's protest, from my internal imagery and from the ancient myth. The tragedy of Sisyphus is that he is a man condemned (perhaps by the gods he has made for himself) to go on repeating an experience of pain and hard labor from which he learns and gains nothing. His pain does not rise to the level of suffering, which we might define as pain that provides access to meaning. The pain of Sisyphus is most terrible because it is dumb repetition, without meaning. I was now obliged to ask myself: What do I have to learn, or gain, by putting myself through anoher hour of excruciating pain in a dentist's chair simply because in my bull-headed (or rather picador-capped) way, I've decided I won't take pain-killers?
With my mouth full of stuff, I tried to make a sound that might be heard as distress. The dentist and her assistant removed enough equipment for me to say, "I'll try the Novocaine. On condition you give me the smallest dose and only apply it to the immediate area you're working on."
It was a done deal. Apart from some pain at the beginning and the end of the several procedures, I experienced only mild discomfort over the next hour. I reached for a hand-mirror, to check that all the blood had been wiped from my face. "It wouln't be much of an ad for the dentistry," I joked to the assistant, "If I walk out looking like I've been hammered in an alley." The frame of the mirror was shaped like a tooth, one of those cute props you find in dental offices. I realized that today, I had been brought in front of a life mirror. In it I found Sisyphus in a dentist's chair. In that moment of self-recognition, the Sisyphus in me resigned from his duties to his old gods.