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No Smartphones at the Thanksgiving Table

As we gather with family this time of year, and if we are alert and engaged, we can learn powerful lessons. But if we are in a fog of mindless busyness, if we are impaled on our gimmicks and gadgets, we will miss moments of insight.

Life is a conveyor belt of losses. One form of loss is the retirement of trusted professionals who have cared for us through the years. A case in point was my trusted, beloved dentist. He was kind, he was professional, and he was available. He was a good guy.

His office was bought out by a superb technician, a gifted dental surgeon who cared for the little nuisances that arise with aging. But then something unusual happened. The dental hygienist who had been with the practice for thirty-five years announced her retirement too. Another loss. Another friendly face that disappeared into the gloaming of the evening.

I showed up for a routine dental check. A new hygienist was on board, and I felt a wince of anxiety—but then something magical happened.

The hygienist had mastered the art of curiosity. She was genuinely interested in who I was, what I did, and what my life was like. This was profoundly refreshing.

Just think for a minute how almost always friends, neighbors, and acquaintances need to dump on us all the miseries, sufferings, setbacks, and disappointments of life. How the talk around the Thanksgiving table devolves into someone’s agenda. We might talk about politics, the weather, sports, and their thinking how they can interject some downer into the conversation.

We have all been there. It’s draining.

The hygienist and I had a lovely conversation despite the poking and prodding with instruments in my mouth. But I was curious about her life situation as well, which is how I treated my clinical patients. And she rather casually mentioned that her husband had a challenging job as a manager of several retail outlets and the real frustrations of hiring and retaining adequate help.

She shared that she had a family of four young children, a commute on a single lane of treacherous county roads, and the challenges of evening school and church activities.

There was no complaint, no whining. It was just a tapestry of a demanding professional and personal life.

My session was completed at about five, and it was a dark, cold Minnesota night. She had two additional patients to attend to and would probably not get home until seven and then off to a choir recital. Fairly mundane stuff but she accepted these challenges with poise and dignity. And shared with me a powerful lesson that when we meet someone, we really have no idea about the challenges and issues with which they struggle.

So what were the take-home messages from my trip to the dentist?

· Floss after each meal, brush on a regular basis, and see your dentist at least twice a year. Okay, we all know that.

· Cultivate a genuine curiosity about people. They have stories; they have a past and future.

· Slow down, turn off the phone, the TV, and the iPad. Be engaged and listen. We may learn from powerful insights about others and about ourselves.

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