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Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardine:
The Attributes of the Arts and the Rewards Which Are Accorded Them (1766)

"I'll just have to wait and see …"

I sat in the dentist's chair feeling consigned to enduring my well-deserved penance. I had, after all, avoided dentists for more than a decade while I failed to work through a small trauma, a slight so minor, so seemingly routine, that I might have not even noticed, except I'd noticed and blown it all out of proper proportion, and there I was, collecting my just deserts. Except this work didn't seem all that onerous, especially when compared to how I'd for so long imagined it would be. Compared to my pre-catastrophizing, this was nothing. I imagined the same routine work being undertaken fifty years before under the technology and fumbling hands of my childhood dentist, Himmler Pearson, who always seemed to revel in the discomfort he imposed. More modern practices emphasize patient comfort. I almost expected to be offered a brandy and a Montechristo, but wasn't.

With little left to do but imagine through what once would have been the excruciatingly painful portion of the procedure, I began to consider what, if not punishment, if not penance, was I experiencing?
I proposed to myself in those moments that perhaps I was experiencing a Reward, recognition for having lived so long. Most of my forebears had been ancient at forty, those that even managed to live that long. A few had somehow, despite absent technology, lived into their nineties. Most, I guess, managed with around three score and ten, that common Biblical metric for the human lifespan. Anything lived beyond seventy, then, might reasonably be considered gravy, excess, Reward. I will, later this month, God willing, exceed those three score and ten years and enter what I might as well consider to be my prime. Seventy-one does, after all, qualify as a prime number.

I left that dentist visit with a temporary crown and a different orientation to my world. I had entered feeling a bit put upon. I had been emotionally prepared for a dressing down, penance blended with some well-deserved punishment, but left feeling refreshed, renewed, enlivened. I had another crown to look forward to in the near future and a short session of cavity filling, then the two permanent crown fittings. These seemed as if I could do them backwards in heels. I'd lost the dread that had stalked me for years. My head seemed clearer.

Even blessings sometimes seem like curses, and it might be a defining feature of my culture to consider whatever's impending as more threat than promise. I can anticipate worse from best, awful from completely normal. How might it be, I seem to need to ask myself, if I learned how to leave the dread behind? What might happen if I presumed the grand scales balanced, with no penances left to perform, no shortfalls remaining for which to dedicate myself to compensate? What if whatever's remaining of this excursion came without strings attached? Just a gift. a just Reward?

I could complain that even this invitation seems an onerous proposition, if only to prove that I remain incapable of learning anything. But I'm standing here this morning without very much of a sense of foreboding, a fresh and nearly unprecedented experience. I just have to wonder if I'll be able to hack this, a life lived without dread anticipation, one experienced as positive just deserts rather than as a sincere expectation that it might fall apart at any moment. I can do resigned to fate, but can I do warm anticipation? Will this expectation exhaust or enliven me? I guess I'll just have to wait and see whether I can turn unrelenting Reward into another kind of punishment.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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