I have a new dentist, a lovely twelve-year-old girl. Her dental assistant, Denise, is about the same age, give or take a year. When Denise was on vacation recently, she got her hair cut; she was tired of always putting it up because it’s so hot out so she just decided to whack it all off. My dentist thinks it’s super cute, really. This conversation took place between them while they were giving me a root canal and crown. It’s one thing that they get you in the chair, give you a shot to numb you, and then present you with a sheet full of disclaimers and cautions, asking you to sign it, approving the procedure you’re already in the middle of. But when they carry on this girlish chatter while the drill is digging ever deeper into your gums, it’s disconcerting to say the least.
Last night I was reading the novel Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. The story’s protagonist is a young man just finishing college who notes that ‘maturing is to some degree learning to lose our disdain for the generation we’ve been called upon to replace.’ I can see that. Reminds me of the old Mark Twain quote, ‘When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to 21 I was astonished at how much the the old man had learned in seven years.’ When I was young I was as bad a smart-aleck as has ever inhabited the planet. Later I saw how much my elders could have told me—tried to tell me—if I had only listened.
And now I am on the other side of the equation, the older person who sees everyone as too young for the roles they inhabit, too inexperienced to understand things fully. My young dentist, vendors who call on me at work looking like they just left the playground, insurance agents, financial advisors, everybody is so young! I am called upon to learn trust, to know that these people, while young, are educated, tested, ready to provide the services they advertise. I must lose my disdain for the generation that’s replacing me.
In art, the seasons are often used as a metaphor for human life, from the springtime of youth through the aging and death of autumn and winter. We move through them one stage at a time, always looking towards what comes next. But what you don’t realize until you get to an advanced age is how much you also look back. This is what separates the seasons from human life—looking back as much as looking forward. The Romans must have understood this when they created their god Janus, god of beginnings, whose name is inscribed in the month January. He was a two-faced deity, always looking forward and backward, because nothing ever happens—nothing meaningful, anyway—without both.
I purposely selected a woman dentist. I just don’t like a guy with his big hairy knuckles digging around in my mouth. I was, I am still surprised by how young she looks, how young everyone in her office looks. But my tooth feels fine now, she and her assistant did an excellent job, despite over-sharing about Denise’s hairstyle choices. Like most people, I dislike dental surgery, and it was a big step for me going in to get some things taken care of. It was also a big step, moving closer to trusting the younger generation.