Wisdom, Lost and Gained

This winter break, I experienced one of those nearly inevitable teenage rites of passage: wisdom tooth extraction. To say the least, I was terrified; I had stomachaches for a week leading up to the surgery. Minutes before the process began, Dr. McNamara, who I’m sure frequently has the rather unpleasant duty of dealing with petrified patients, attempted to quell my fear. “What is it you’re so afraid of?” I didn’t really know—pain, blood, sedation, of course, but the fear was amorphous and untargeted. “Don’t worry; I will take care of those things.” And yet still a distant worry nagged me—the foreseeable threat of the surgery’s reputable scar: looking like a chipmunk. “That,” the doctor laughed (manically helps the image), “I can’t help you with.” Sadly, it was true. Within 24 hours, his predictions all came to life (I suppose 41 years in the business can help with that): I had pain, but a little godsend called Vicodin; I had blood, but gauze; and the sedation had completely worn off. And yet my cheeks had ballooned exponentially, all too reminiscent of a chipmunk and his acorns. My sister laughed, threatening to take pictures and post them on Facebook (don’t even try to look; there are none, fortunately). My mother hid her grin when she looked at me. My father even tried to insist that there was nothing wrong. But when you can see your own cheeks in your peripheral vision, you know something’s not right. For days I abided by the typical wisdom-tooth-extraction schedule: I slept, woke up, took painkillers and slept some more, eating oatmeal and scrambled eggs when I felt like it. I read stupid magazines and watched reruns of Project Runway. I took antibiotics on a regular schedule. (Not to mention that I blatantly did not study for the SAT.) Meanwhile, the rest of my family continued to busy themselves with their lives; my dad went to work, my mother and sister went on errands to the grocery store, the drug store, the mall, downtown. They offered to take me out, but I always declined, desperately fearing the public ridicule of my puffball cheeks. Heaven forbid someone throw a rotten tomato at me. “Oh, you are so 17,” said my mother. “No one cares what your cheeks look like.” But still I stayed home. Lying in bed those days, slightly drugged, I had a lot of opportunities to think about—and I can’t seem to say this less cheesily—life. Was I wasting away my coveted vacation time just lying around the house? Do people actually care what I look like? How many times have I not done something that I really wanted to do merely because I feared looking like an idiot? Yes. Probably not. Many. In that order. By the fourth day, I was absolutely desperate to get out of the house. I’d had enough staring up at my bedroom ceiling. I’d had enough pointless internet surfing. All I wanted to do was get out. And I was willing to let people see me in my state of “vulnerability” if that’s what leaving the house meant. As it turned out, no one threw tomatoes at me. No one told me that I looked ridiculous or asked me why the hell I would go out in public looking like I did. And while it’s entirely possible that a few people giggled to themselves, those people are probably very insecure themselves. Nevertheless, I’d bet that the majority of the people I encountered that day in the supermarket were more focused on buying enough eggs or getting the right kind of lettuce than on surveying the state of my cheeks. And I felt amazingly refreshed for getting out of the house. I’ll admit that my anecdote is a little bit lame, but it’s applicable to so many aspects of being a human, especially a teenager. Even when opportunity abounds, we hold ourselves back for fear of what others think. And it’s become so cliché to tell others not to worry about what others think and yet we still do ourselves. But the solution does not lie simply in telling ourselves to abandon care; that would be all too easy. What I realized is that the reason I worry about others’ judgments is that I make too many judgments myself. Not only should I care less about what others think, but I have a duty to reserve my own judgments. Only if we ourselves are more able to hold back our ridicule of others can we, when we are the “others,” feel more comfortable taking risks. And it is only in this way that puffy-cheeked patients like I was can feel safe walking the streets.