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Yet Untitled 022 - On being praised by my dentist
I'll take encouragement over a root-canal any day
Hi there Yet Untitlers,
I don’t know what it’s like for you, but I start constructing very morbid fantasies in my mind a few days before going to the dentist. It happens every time. My brain keeps repeating - “You, my friend, are going to enter a world of pain.” (Big Lebowsky fans, the Dude Abides!)
This was especially so last week. I hadn’t been to the dentist in four years! Four years!
Of course, as far as my mind was concerned, a phantasmagoria of horrors awaited me!
And then…my dentist - the loveliest of dentists on the face of this earth - took a look inside and exclaimed as if she had found the winner of a priceless art restoration standoff. Turns out that things were in good shape.
Now, I’m no dentist’s poster boy. My teeth break into a twist here and there, and the room doesn’t really light up with electric incandescence when I smile. I’m told that the discolouration I have is common in India because of the amount of turmeric in our cuisine. Also, when I smile, at a certain angle - because of a crooked incisor - I qualify as a contender for an Alfred E. Neuman lookalike contest.
Still, my dentist - the loveliest of dentists on the face of this earth - heaped praise upon me for taking good care of my teeth. It was genuine. She’s known me for years and knows the care I put in
I must say - my dentist’s praise did give an otherwise crappy week a nudge for the better. Does that mean that this edition is about…encouragement?
Why not? I’m a big fan of encouragement.
PS. Am I the only one who feels that the original TOP GUN is a film about annoyingly perfect teeth? I revisited the first film yesterday as prep for watching the new one in the theatres, and in this bar scene below I found myself hyper-aware of Cruise and Kilmer’s unreal, aligned hyper-white grinders. Just see their my-cock-is-bigger showdown in the clip below, especially around 1:00 on the scrub line.
Knowing the baseline
Some of the best and most useful encouragement I’ve received has come from people who have known me over time.
To me, useful encouragement is the kind that comes back to comfort me on dark days. It’s the little coin in your pocket that you can reach in and feel the shape of, knowing that with it, you can buy your way back to to a brighter place
I received a lot of praise for my first big success in my career, all of which I’m grateful for; but the one utterance that really hit was from my ex-boss - the man who gave me my first job in this city. This is a man who has seen me fail, who I’ve disappointed, who’s watched me take some steps forward and then many more steps back. Him saying “what you just did was a big deal”was a big deal.
Here’s another life metaphor from my 40s that involves another medical professional (🙈). My ophthalmologist, who had called me in for glaucoma testing (because my dad had it) told me that the tests they’re doing just now are ‘baseline tests’. So that later - if the information is ever needed - other doctors after them will know where we were when we started.
My ex-boss - now also my friend (and a reader of YU) - knew my baseline in this business. Thus his encouragement really counted.
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Knowing someone’s baseline is a big responsibility. If you wanted, you could hurt ‘em pretty much at will.
Husbands, wives, siblings - y’all hearing me and nodding?
I’m always puzzled when someone close to me chooses to use their knowledge of my baseline to put me down or win an argument. I mean…how could they? Isn’t it an almost sacred responsibility? It feels like the ultimate act of betrayal, especially when done knowingly.
But, you know what? I’ve done it too. Usually in anger.
It’s unnerving to watch kids do it quite naturally - knowing each others’ pet peeves. My twins know exactly how to make each other seethe with rage. There was a time when my brother seemed to know this secret button that he’d press and turn me into an out of control rage monster. Thankfully things have changed!
Boarding school was a constant drama of such betrayals. When loyalties changed, the spoils of friendship turned into knives in the hands of cruel kids who felt stronger when they used those blades against the weak. This feels like a microcosmic replica of the world at the moment.
And then there’s my dentist - the loveliest of all dentists. And my ex-boss. They turn the tide by existing and being themselves: responsible keepers of baselines that they are.
Marcus Aurelius-ing my baseline
For those of you who have been reading Yet Untitled for awhile - you know my penchant for Marcus Aurelius and his penchant for lists. Here’s me channeling the old Roman, with a list of encouragements I’ll never forget:
When Diana Mehta, my first Iyengar Yoga teacher, told me that I could do a handstand, and then showed me that I could.
When B. Nitin Mohan patiently showing me that grade 8 math was surmountable.
When Angad travelled 161 Kms alone from Chandigarh to Panipat to spend two nights next to me while I was bedridden because of a back injury. We were both 17.
When my mom swore that I will get the university of my choice after I had already received the first big rejection.
When I received a letter of appreciation from Mr. Gurdial Singh, a former teacher from my school who I had never met - praising me for a something I had written in the school newspaper (I’ve forgotten my own article, but I can’t forget his commendation).
When a very kind man who I spent a day with at a time when my face was a distorted bloom of acne, never once mentioned the acne, asked me what I was doing about it or offered advise about how I could deal with it.
When my agent and friend Datta tells me (so many times by now) “We’ll find a way”.
A small story about courage
This may sound silly, but I broke down the word ‘encourage’ and found it to leap out at me afresh when I read it as ‘En-Courage’. When you encourage someone, you don’t take a step for them, rather you get them to take a step forward themselves. I like the word a lot better than ‘En-Able’, primarily because of all the positive connotations ‘Courage’ stirs up in my mind.
In my experience - something good always happens when I’m brave. And by brave I don’t mean reckless. Thankfully, the snake in the following photo didn’t have any murderous ideas on that day.
By ‘brave’, I mean being able to get past something that has always held me back.
One day - I witnessed an accident on the road: a lady in a sari was knocked down by a motorcycle while she’d been crossing. I was in an Uber. In an uncharacteristic move, I asked the driver to stop. A large gathering of people had congregated around the woman, but nobody was really helping her. This was already a scenario I’d never stick my nose into - because I’m usually frightened of unpredictable, public scenes involving crowds.
But, not this time.
This happened about a year into my journey with Buddhism. I had read something by Josei Toda recently in the context of Nichiren Buddhist study, where he said (to paraphrase):
“If you don’t understand the meaning of Faith, replace the word Faith with Courage.”
I think this had stayed with me. It played a part in what happened next. I went in.
The next thing I knew, I was right next to the lady in the sari, talking directly to her in the midst of at least a hundred confused voices around me. What’s astounding was that she responded only to me.
Do you need a hospital? I asked.
No. Just get me home, she said.
Miraculously, my Uber driver haD followed me and was standing right there.
I’ll take her home, he said.
When I helped her to the car, we gave each other a hug. She was bleeding but she was smiling. I was smiling too. It was going to be ok.
As I rode back home that day, I knew that this was something I’d never forget. And that the way I felt - nothing, nothing could discolour it or turn it into something negative.
It would always remain an indestructible memory of happiness.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to reconnecting next week. Before I go:
Tell me about a time when you were brave. What happened? What did you get from it?
I want to know!