What's a Dentist to Do? The Search for Meaning

What's a Dentist to Do? The Search for Meaning

Jack L. Churchill, D.D.S.*:

From the Editors: This is the last report from Dr. Jack Churchill as Chair of the MDA’s Committee on Ethics, Bylaws and Constitution. On behalf of everyone associated with  Northwest Dentistry and the rest of Dr. Churchill’s devoted readers, we thank him for the many years of thoughtful, insightful, at times uncomfortable, and always eminently  readable contributions to understanding what makes a person into a dentist, a dentist into a person, and both those entities into the best each of us can be. Jack has believed in us even when we haven’t believed in ourselves as much. The standard he expresses is as indelible as it is undeniable. As our journal continues to celebrate the individual  voice, Jack Churchill’s will resonate in what we carry forward. Thank you, Jack, for all you have shared with us. 

We are in a continual search for meaning in our lives. This need for meaning supercedes even the need for pleasure or the need to avoid pain. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, says this search leads to an inner tension which is totally healthy. We need this tension between what we have achieved and what is left to accomplish,  or between who we are and who we should be.  Here we do not need equilibrium. We need to strive and struggle for a worthwhile goal. Perfecting our dentistry and our  service to our patients is certainly a worthwhile goal, and does not come without its struggles and sacrifices. But to seek and then acknowledge a meaning in one’s life and  work helps us to effectively survive. Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 
 
Frankl also says we can discover this meaning “in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed, (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” 
 
Examples of the first are obvious in our profession. Hopefully – I doubt we’d be in this business without it – we get meaning from our work. Throughout my career in dentistry  I have experienced the ups and downs we all have felt. I have lost good employees. I’ve lost bad ones. I have felt invigorated. I’ve felt totally fatigued. I have had good days where everything was flush, and other days when nothing went right. I have felt part of a dynamic team. I’ve felt betrayed. Throughout this roller coaster ride, however, I  have always had my work, my dentistry, to fall back on. That has been my constant. 
 
Of course, another way to find meaning is serving others, perhaps in ways “outside the box”. There are many, many ways to serve in our profession – Give Kids a Smile,  Project Homeless Connect, the Dental Lifeline Network’s Donated Dental Services program, a mission trip, and now Minnesota Mission of Mercy, a new program approved  
by the 2011 House of Delegates to deliver care to the underserved. Minnesota’s first MOM event will be in Mankato August 17 and 18, 2012. 
 
That brings us to number three on Frankl’s list.
 
Being human “always points, and is directed, to something or someone other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one  forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.” 
 
Viktor Frankl was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was often one of a group that would be marched from the camp to a work site to do hard labor. It was  a long trek starting in the early darkness, often into an icy wind, guards shouting all the way and driving them with the butts of their rifles. Along the way, he would think of  his wife. “Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind  clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness.” 
 
He understood then that someone who has absolutely nothing left except suffering may know bliss, if for a moment, in the thoughts of those he loved. He realized then man’s  greatest secret — “salvation of man is through love and in love.”
 
Yet another time, as Frankl worked in a trench, he spoke quietly with his wife, wondering why he suffered so. He was slowly dying. Suddenly on the horizon a light was lit in a  distant farmhouse. He sensed something. Once again he felt his wife’s presence – felt he could reach out and grasp her hand. She was “there. Then, at that moment, a bird  flew down silently right in front of me and perched on a heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch and looked steadily at me.” 
 
The practice of dentistry affords us innumerable rewards and satisfactions. We are indeed blessed. Along with its joys, however, are the realities of running a business while 
providing a product that people often do not want in an environment that can sometimes be hostile. How about that for suffering? 
 
We have, and Viktor Frankl and all other holocaust survivors had, the ultimate freedom — the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose  one’s own way”. Every day, every hour, decisions are made in our practices. We should make those decisions based on strong convictions and on an inner strength which prevents us from becoming “a plaything of circumstance”. This inner strength in the face of troubles can sometimes raise us above our outward fate. We are all confronted  with fate, but also with the opportunity of achieving something through our suffering. 
 
The movie “Saving Private Ryan” speaks to this in its finale, when James Ryan, with his family by his side, finds the gravestone of Captain John Miller. Captain Miller and his  men had saved Private Ryan from certain death during WWII. Private Ryan had since committed his life to achieving something from their suffering — “to earn it”, as Miller had  whispered in Ryan’s ear just before he died. 
 
Difficult situations both in our offices and out give us all the unique opportunity to grow professionally, personally, and spiritually. How do you bear these burdens? 
 
Frankl describes our past as “full granaries to be continually salvaged of all our deeds, joys, and sufferings. No one can take this from us.” What we have done, what we have  thought, what we have suffered — all this, though past, is not gone. “Having been is a type of being and perhaps the surest kind.” So don’t be a pessimist turning the sheets  of the calendar with fear and trepidation that your days are passing. Instead, as the months go by, make notes of your life — lived to its fullest, though imperfectly — on the  back of these sheets, and reflect on them with pride. 
 
In the end, Frankl says it does not matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. We should stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead allow  ourselves to be questioned by life. How does life want us to act, think, and talk? Life demands we find the right answers. 
 
And what about us? Are we the end point of the evolution of the cosmos? Is there possibly another dimension beyond us where the question of the meaning of a human life  could be answered? 
 
 
* Information, ideas, concepts, and quotations for this article are from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, forward by Harold Kushner, published by Beacon Press,  Boston, MA, copyright 2006. 

*Dr. Churchill is the immediate past-Chair of the Minnesota Dental Association’s Committee on Ethics, Bylaws, and Constitution. He is a general dentist in private practice in  Minneapolis, Minnesota