My Dental Identity
I’m a lifelong nail biter. Strangely enough, I remember the moment I started. As if to highlight the graciously vanilla flavor of my upbringing, my nail-biting addiction started in the same way I imagine many people start smoking cigarettes: I thought to myself “I wonder what the appeal is,” and never looked back.
As my mother and many others are fond of telling me, it’s a nasty habit that’s far from harmless. On top of making me look like a nervous chipmunk and proclaiming to those around me “DON’T TALK TO ME, I’M STRESSED,” it’s taken a real toll on my brittle front teeth, which have been damaged ever since eight-year-old Danny stretched and snapped a bungee cord, sending the metal hook at the end shooting back to give my front teeth a vicious smooch. Since then, my life has been one ugly chip, fix, and re-chip after another, mostly because the front teeth are the most productive instruments for digging into one’s nails and, unfortunately, the inorganic compound that fills the chips cannot stand up to the unrelenting cuticle deconstruction.
Two to three times per week, I have a stress dream in which I chip or all out break my front teeth. I’m not exaggerating. I’ll often wake up with a shriek, my hand flying to my mouth to check for chips and breaks and, until recently, my finger would always feel the uncorrupted, slimy, straight line of my most central incisors.
But a few weeks ago, my fingers didn’t find what I hoped. I woke from a chipping dream and felt something wrong. I sat up, reached into my mouth, and — to my horror — pulled off a piece of my right front tooth. It had been dangling by a thread. About a week after that I woke to find a piece of my left front tooth sitting on my bottom lip. I screamed both times. Sorry, once again, to my wife for that blood-curdling wakeup.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I was so upset both mornings. I mean, what’s the big deal? Sure, the negative space at the bottom of my two front teeth looks like the head and ears part at the top of the Batman symbol, but I’m supposed to be the type of person that doesn’t care about things like this!
I think that at least part of this is an identity thing. Like anyone else, I struggle with identity issues and much of it is inextricably wrapped in how I look. When my teeth are in one piece I can present my best self, the version of me I wish existed and try to create. Normally creating this image is in my control; I can work out, coif my hair just so, and dress well. But chipping my teeth, while unconscious no less, is entirely and infuriatingly out of my control. People see my flaws and there’s nothing I can do to hide them or fix them.
It’s easy to pretend I have everything together when the things I care about most are still all together. Maybe that’s why God sometimes takes away the things that we care too much about, to show us just how “too much” we care. It turns out my measure for my value is how people see me (in other words, how well I control my image). Fulfilling that law — that set of rules which determines how people see me — is where I find my identity.
What I mean is that we all have these sets of rules or checklists we create in order to help ourselves feel secure. If we follow our own set of rules, the logic goes, then we have tangible proof we’re doing okay, that God’s not mad at us, and others approve of us. But this is a false system. All it amounts to is a way for us to feel secure without having to have faith beyond what we can see because faith is inherently something we can’t see (Hebrews 11:1).
When our identity is founded on something insufficient (read: something not eternal or kind), it’s really difficult to realize it until that identity is threatened because we’re really good at covering up our insufficiencies and our evils. We have financial security, we have relational security, and we even have composite resin compounds that we paint eggshell white and use to fill the chips in our smile. But none of it works. At least not really. Eventually the filler, the unnatural coverup, will fall off and we’ll be forced to see our naked self with all its chips and wicked nonsense that we so desperately want to forget.
But that moment of undoing is actually God’s grace. Only then, when we no longer measure up to the law we’ve created to tell us we’re okay, when we see our true, hideous selves and come to full terms with our pathetic inability to ever be anything in our own power, only then can we accept the immensely simple thing Christ offers us: grace. And that’s real peace — knowing that we are not judged on our ability to measure up. As one of my favorite songwriters put it, “the pressure’s off cuz Jesus Christ’s alive.”
My smile isn’t what I want it to be. I just changed insurances and have to figure out how to find a new dentist so, until I do, it will remain quite imperfect and I’m not thrilled with that. I’ll probably always be terrified of re-chipping. But my worth isn’t built on all the silly things that I believe deep down I have to have or have to be in order to be loved. My worth is not built on how I look or how I act. It’s not based on my perfect smile or my perfect law keeping. It’s built on how God has chosen to deal with me in Christ.
Based on how many times I’ve had to tear down my idol of impressing people, I’m starting to think I might be a bit dense. By trying to control how I look and how people perceive me, I try to control who I am. But, increasingly, I can’t seem to control anything.
My outer self (my teeth and the rest of my body) is slowly chipping away every day, which is something I have to ultimately decide is okay if I’m ever going to actually be okay, because there’s little I can do to stop it. And, really, it is all okay because I know that my inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 5).
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Danny Nathan grew up at Grace participating in the music and worship ministry. He’s currently a worship leader, leading people into worship in a variety of venues, including our modern worship service and student ministry gatherings. Danny is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in English. In June 2016, Danny married his high school sweetheart Alli.