When I was a child, I brushed and flossed my teeth regularly. When I grew older, my dental hygiene ebbed and flowed, depending on circumstances. But looking back, I realize that one thing was always the same: my motivation. I had learned to floss as a response to feelings of guilt and fear.
The guilt part started from knowing that my parents expected me to floss, which I later internalized as “that’s the right the thing to do”, and which was reenforced by dentists, dental hygienists, and well-meaning folks of all persuasions. In fact I remember learning that if one was only going to do one (brushing or flossing), it was “better” to floss. So I would floss because I felt guilty if I didn’t.
The fear part was more powerful and more straight-forward: if you don’t take care of your teeth, you will lose them. Lose them to cavities, gum disease, weak gums, etc. So, especially in the face of an upcoming dental appointment, I would get much more regular with my oral care.
And sometimes I combined the two motivations. I remember bargaining (with whatever conception I had of G*d at the time) that I would maintain a regular dental hygiene practice if only the upcoming visit to the dentist would reveal no cavities. And, as it went, I actually didn’t have any cavities until some time in my late thirties, if memory serves. And I did follow through and take care of my teeth — for a while. So that was a combination of guilt and fear!
And while each of these motivations would work for some period of time, they weren’t able to sustain a good habit consistently over the years. The longest I went with continuous (healthy) teeth care was actually when I realized that brushing my teeth in the afternoon (during the work day) was energizing and revitalizing. I had found a selfish motivation that worked quite well. Eventually, however, that fell off as well, although I can’t recollect exactly why or how.
So this past week a new and strange thing happened. I was washing up in the bathroom and about to brush my teeth, when I was inspired to floss. But this time my motivation was quite surprising to me: I decided to floss my teeth as an act of gratitude. A way of thanking my teeth for their service. An acknowledgement that I really appreciate the work that my teeth do for me. It sounds kind of sappy when I write it out like that, but that was the inspiration of the moment.
And I have to say, it was quite a different experience from any of my previous flossings. I didn’t rush, my mind didn’t wander away from what I was doing. I spent several minutes just caring for my teeth in a loving way. I really enjoyed myself.
It’s too early to say if this will be effective in the long-term, and somehow I am compelled (in the spirit of full disclosure) to reveal that I’m only flossing my upper teeth — because I believe strongly that small, incremental changes are more sustainable than large, “substantial” ones.
But still, it’s a lovely innovation for me, and I thought I’d share it with you. It occurs to me that it might be an effective approach for making positive changes other areas of my life as well. If you have any thoughts on that, please comment below.
May you be blessed with an awareness of your blessings, and may that awareness inspire a heart of gratitude.