"O.K., Hillel, you're a gibor, right? So here, we're going to put this inside your cheek, it tastes like bubblegum..." In such a fashion did the dentist attempt to calm my youngest, Hillel, as he approached the definitive moment of most young dental visits - - - the shot. And indeed, Hillel had been a gibor (Hebrew for brave, mighty hero) on the previous visit, when the dentist had install a crown into his almost 8-year-old mouth. The week before we had to rush to a different dentist who did non-quite emergency root canal work on this little boy's tooth. And what a gibor he was then, too.
But it's hard work being a gibor all the time, especially when it really does hurt, and you don't know what is waiting around the bend. So this time, Hillel's gibor batteries were a bit depleted, and the dentist could tell. Hillel wasn't so ready to cooperate and let him swab the injection site with a topica anesthetic to make the shot less painful, bubblegum taste or not. Finally, that accomplished, the dentist informed Hillel, "O.K., just a short poke...". Hillel whimpered, trying to hold it back, then gave a brief scream. "That's it, we're past the worst part", the dentist reassured the boy.
Wait for a moment till the xylocaine or whatever takes effect, and then procede. But, it seems, the sensitivity is still there, Hillel's reactions are obstructing progress. "Just a little bit more, one more poke..."
Hold on there!! Didn't you tell my son "we're past the worst part"? And you said that because you had gained his trust with your genuinely friendly demeanor, your smiles, your joking. So that, despite his apprehensions, he clings to your words hopefully, and a would-be scream is transformed into more of a squeal. And now, you're telling him, just one more poke? How do you expect him to believe you? What is he to make of your assurances in the future. Why did you... lie?
Now that's a harsh word. The dentist presumably really believed he wouldn't need a second injection, despite the fact that, sometimes, it is necessary. He was trying to get hold of the situation for the benefit of my son and, admittedly, for the sake of his own sense of professionalism, and, perhaps, with one eye on his scheduled subsequent patients. And yet, if he had paused to reflect that, perhaps, he might be causing damage to a child's ability to trust the adult into whose reassuring care he has been placed in moments of angst, he might have phrased things differently: "Just a quick poke and that's it, we probably will only need one".
Hmmn. I try to put myself in Hillel's place, and that doesn't sound so reassuring. And Hillel wants, needs that "don't-worry, I'm-here" certainty that eases him past the oncoming wave of anxiety that breaks over his head as the needle touches his cheek.
So I'm taking a different look at the exchange. Truth, factual truth, of course, has its place. But so does that act of speech that goes beyond factual truth to reach toward a truth born in connection. We are constantly telling "little lies" to ease people through a difficult patch, hoping the next one might be avoided even as we know how unlikely that is. Why, I did it tonight, when putting Hillel to bed. He shares a room with his older brother, Yinon, and, of late, Hillel has had trouble falling asleep without someone else in the room, and in the room, and, "are you still in the room?"
He called upstairs, asking, "Is Yinon coming?" "Yes, I answered, in a few minutes".
"Is Yinon coming?", I heard again much sooner than I had expected. "Yes, Hillel, just another few minutes".
"Where is Yinon?" came the call, after those "another few minutes" had passed. "He's in the shower, I'm sure he'll be down as soon as he's through".
And he was - - - but, of course, by then, Hillel was asleep.
He trusted me, as I stretched those "few minutes" time and time again. When he fell asleep, I want to believe that the truth of our interaction carried him into dreamland more faithfully than the dubious accuracy of the words of which it was constituted.
After the cavity was filled, Hillel picked out a little plastic recorder (the musical instrument) as his prize for being a gibor. And later, he agreed heartily with the other kids' assessment that the dentist was a very nice guy. Because, after all, the worst part was over - wasn't it??