Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Reflections from the dentist’s chair
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Nov. 15, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
There is no question that sometimes it’s helpful to be preoccupied and distracted. Like when you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, awaiting the man with the jackhammer. At times like these it’s a recommended practice to count the cars on the street or the number of holes in the ceiling tile.
Distractions can be convenient avoidance mechanisms. A sort of psychological Novocain. Pain from the dentist’s drill – and other forms of human suffering – often are too threatening to handle directly. The senses must be dulled and the will stiffened for endurance.
As much as it is a part of life, physical suffering need not be embraced full-force. Suffering just for the sake of suffering is masochism. It is void of meaning; it is dehumanizing. For the preservation and promotion of human dignity, it is appropriate to lessen suffering. Thank God for goods like aspirin, Novocain and morphine!
The reduction of pain seems to lessen our fear. At times, the numbing effect of these medicines and drugs are welcome friends indeed. When the pain gets too strong or unbearable, we seek their remedy. The skills of doctors and nurses are brought to our aid. Attacked by pain, we seek explicit recourse and, we hope, make wise choices.
It is a myth that all human suffering can be eliminated, or that we can avoid all fear of what the human condition brings us. Whether we like it or not, suffering of one kind or another is part and parcel of life. There is one kind of human suffering in particular that cannot be alleviated by modern technology. Preoccupations of one kind or another, drugs, alcohol and the like can only take away its symptoms temporarily. That suffering is the psychological angst that lies at the root of needing to find meaning or purpose in life. Beneath the surface of our daily lives we all experience the need for everything to make sense, to lead somewhere. Our hearts hunger for a sense of destiny, a sense of direction. Sometimes this element of human suffering looms large and impinges itself on the human heart. For some it can be experienced as the dark night of the soul. More often than not, we experience it as an underlying but ever-present questioning or gnawing at the heart of life itself.
For those who (falsely) think that life-as-they-know-it will last forever, these brief reflections are an absurdity. For those who realize that their historical lives are finite, the question takes on more urgent form. In the midst of daily routine, meetings and job responsibilities comes the question: Is this all there is? A fear that our calendared wisdom and manipulations of time may be all there is to life drives us to distraction. It is tempting to simply get busier and busier – injecting ourselves with a type of Novocain which deadens the questioning of life. Our fear that life may be meaningless intensifies if (or when) we face the fact that our days are numbered. Death becomes the huge question mark that stands abruptly and unavoidably at the end of all our days. In the short or the long term, life can seem so empty, so absurd.
Without faith, facing the fact of life’s limits can be enormously paralyzing. In fact, our occasional experiences of boredom are indications that the question is there, even if we don’t want to ask it. Boredom is a state of meaninglessness. At such times nothing seems to make us happy.
These are sobering thoughts – and ample food for prayerful reflection during this month of November, the Church’s traditional time to address the question of death and life hereafter. The ashes of Lent even echo here: “Remember, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” In the face of ultimate death, what is there to live for? Where is the source of our life’s meaning and our salvation? For people without faith, they are a terrifying reminder.
Perhaps it is when we are brave enough to address the reality of death we can be impacted by the truth of the Gospel. Thank God for Jesus! Not because he takes away our suffering and deadens the pain of life’s questioning. He doesn’t. He himself has embraced it to the full – even to death on the cross. His Resurrection, however, is God’s loving statement to us that in death, life is changed, not ended. Dying is a way of living. The Resurrection of Jesus is not a philosophical or theological answer to the anxious human heart. The Resurrection is an event in the personal life of Jesus of Nazareth. He becomes for us, in a personal way, our own hope for resurrection and eternal life. Because of Jesus, we dare to believe that there is more to our days than the passing of time until dust we become. In Jesus, our days lead somewhere and are meaningful.
Sometimes it is helpful to “take away Jesus” from our lives, as it were, and to get into touch with life’s experience without him. How empty and meaningless it would be! What a desert! To insert ourselves into life’s questioning on a deeper plane than “what are we to wear, eat or purchase?” is spiritually healthy. Let’s face the truth: We can be too busy to be afraid of life’s ultimate challenge. We can be too preoccupied and distracted to have time for this game, or even to recognize that the question is there. Once we can allow ourselves to be afraid, then we can experience more realistically the joy of the Good News. Jesus is our life!
(Father Savelesky is diocese’s Director of Deacon Formation, and pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane.)