Browsing Tag



panic at the dentist: on moral neutrality

“I have a lot of hangups” would be a most profound understatement.

I was thinking that again on my way to the dentist this morning. To explain why dentist = hangup, you’ll need some context. My family never misses seeing the dentist, and I mean never. Dental hygiene was a monumental deal– one of the most memorable spankings I received was the one night I tried to lie about brushing my teeth (the spanking was mostly for lying, but also a little bit for not brushing my teeth). Hygiene in general was important, but somehow I got the message that having clean teeth equated with being a morally good and responsible person.

So, you can imagine how incredibly proud I was of the fact that I’d never had a cavity. Every time the dentist would joke “if everyone had teeth like yours I’d be out of business!” and I’d say something about drinking three glasses of milk every day. That record lasted until a) not seeing a dentist for two years in graduate school, b) while I was drinking buckets of coffee every day, c) had an diagnosed vitamin-D deficiency and d) was not regularly flossing. The first time I saw a dentist after I got married, I had ten cavities. Ten. Flash forward two years later and one of them needed a crown.

Needless to say, I now dread going to the dentist.

This morning’s appointment was the first one I’d had in a while since I’d had to cancel my last appointment unexpectedly (as in: I was standing in the waiting room obviously about to throw up and they sent me home because they are nice, considerate, lovely people and I was being a little silly). All week I have had nightmares because I was utterly convinced that they were going to find cavities in all my teeth and I was going to need at least six root canals. At least. I was actually up until 3 am Wednesday night because I couldn’t stop feeling anxious about my dentist appointment that wasn’t for another two whole bloody days. I also kept having intrusive thoughts about the hygienist somehow picking all my fillings out (it’s happened before, with a filling that didn’t set properly).

Turns out I was freaking out for literally no reason (something I already sort of knew, but this is how JerkBrain works). The cleaning went fine, none of my fillings fell out, and they didn’t find any new cavities. I was in an out in twenty minutes, and I even got a compliment for having practically no tartar buildup.


I’m obviously having trouble deconstructing the idea that developing a cavity is a moral failing. If I were a good person, I’d floss twice a day and use mouthwash every night. Instead, I rarely use mouthwash and I floss maybe once or twice a week, which means that I’m a bad person. Bad people let all their teeth rot of their head, which is clearly what I’m doing when I don’t floss every single day.

However, this isn’t just about dental hygiene. Growing up, there was absolutely nothing that didn’t have a weighty, moral significance. Everything we did, saw, ate, read, or went all had eternal import. I heard a few verses tossed around to support this concept, notably one from Philippians:

Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel …

That word “conversation” is politeuomai, and it basically means “living as a citizen.” In the context of this verse, our entire lives, all of our affairs, our conduct, were supposed to be lived as a citizen under “the gospel of Christ”– and in such a way that you’d have a reputation for living that way. There wasn’t a single aspect of our lives that wasn’t evaluated for whether or not it was a “Christian” thing to do or be or think or say.

Including, apparently, brushing your teeth.

I was talking to a friend recently and, in trying to be encouraging, I stumbled into something that I think could be helpful for a lot of us:

Not everything is meant to be received as a comment on your character.

Some things just … are. They just exist. You do them or not, you say them or not, you read them or not, you eat them or not, and none of it says anything about who you are as a person. A doughnut is just a doughnut, regardless of how your body is perceived by our culture. Curse words are just curse words, and saying them doesn’t actually mean you have a shallow vocabulary. Cavities … are just cavities, no matter how much your dentist might tsk at you about flossing.

Last night my small group met, and we got to this passage in our Bible study:

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable … “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.”

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23)

Aside from the hilarity of hearing Jesus say (roughly) “you eat then you shit,” this passage has a place in my heart because it’s the exact opposite of what Christian culture generally communicates. Don’t watch R-rated movies. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t listen to “bad” music. The implicit idea is these things are capable of defiling you … except Jesus says they can’t, that it’s only defiling actions that matter, and he lists some pretty obvious ones.

I especially loved this passage last night, the night before my dentist appointment, because Jesus is responding to the Pharisees freaking out about him not washing his hands. Jesus is saying “look, y’all, whether or not I wash my hands has nothing to do with whether or not I’m a good person. The only thing that matters is whether or not I do good, loving things.”

Whether or not I have a cavity can’t say anything about my character. Whether or not you exercise, or clean, or diet, or whatever,  doesn’t say anything about yours.

Social Issues

Star Trek made me a moral person

When I was eight, I became obsessed with the concept of the morality tale. I had a children’s book with some of Aesop’s Fables in it, stories like “The Fox and Grapes” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” A friend of ours who lived in Korea sent back a collection of Korean folk tales, many of which have the same feel as Aesop’s Fables, the same sort of simple moral lesson. To this day those books are among my prized possessions, and I am very much looking forward to sharing these works with my children, if I can have them.

When I was ten, I wrote and illustrated a story about a fox and a turtle that featured my burgeoning love of wit and dedication– in some way the fox was trying to be crafty and lazy, but the turtle outwitted him and got him to do most of the work. I was immensely proud of that story even though I can’t remember most of it now– there was something about rocks and apples and a wheelbarrow?– and I’m pretty sure mom still has it tucked away somewhere.

In many ways I’ve outgrown the simplicity and ease of those stories. Part of growing up is realizing that the world is much more gray than it is black and white, and that the good guy doesn’t always win. Now, I like my villains complex and my heroines flawed, and I love stories that shine a bright, jarring light on our humanity, on all of our brilliance and shame. Sometimes I want a story where the “moral” is:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. This is not a weakness, this is life.”

That quote is from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Captain Picard is speaking to Data, a character I’ve always identified with, explaining a lesson that can be a difficult one to truly grasp.

I often joke that my earliest memory is the theme song to Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series premiered the year I was born– in fact, the first episode aired in the same month. Even when we were in the fundamentalist cult we still prioritized Star Trek. We didn’t have cable while Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise were airing, so our neighbor recorded them for us. New episodes of Voyager aired on Wednesday, and every week after church my sister and I would fly out of the car and breathlessly rush to our neighbor’s door in order to pick up the VHS tape.

Voyager was more my church than church was, really. I idolized Captain Kathryn Janeway, and one of the more upsetting experiences of my childhood was the finale of season five, when the last shot makes it look like Janeway might have been killed. I grieved all summer, hoping and praying that she would be alright. (Yes, I’m aware I care about fictional characters way too much. If you want to see a show, ask me about Egwene al’Vere from the Wheel of Time at some point.)

What I didn’t realize was that my deep and abiding love for Janeway and Seven and Jadziah and Data and Picard and Trip was changing me. Episodes like “The Outcast” later became the context I had for understanding and loving myself as a queer person. The entire story arc of Star Trek: Enterprise‘s third season, which aired in 2003, helped form and shape my views on foreign policy and the War on Terror. Enterprise culminates in the forming of the Federation of Planets, something that Archer came to fight for after realizing that war– even war in the name of “national security”– is terrible, and that violence must not be favored over understanding, trust, and relationship.

Star Trek, in many ways, is a modern morality play. There’s more nuance, more shades of grey, more complicated human realities, but what it does best is feature people with all their flaws and beauties struggling to make the world a better place. Sometimes, they fail. As Chakotay learns in “The Year of Hell,” sometimes even your best and purest motives are wrong. In Star Trek, though, winning is defined not by typical notions of success and wealth and power, but by understanding. When characters learn more about themselves– like Data learning about fear in Star Trek: Generations– or about other people, nations, planets, and species, that’s what the show considers a success.

My priorities and values were affected by growing up in a fundamentalist cult. Hatred and fear overrode almost anything else I absorbed through my religion, but somehow Star Trek mitigated all of that. In many ways, the different shows became a North Star of sorts; I didn’t have a God that I knew loved me, but my idea of love was shaped by watching all the different ways– flawed, terrible, beautiful, sad ways– that the characters cared about each other. Even today when I think of a concept like friendship I see Data and Geordi, Tom and Harry, Janeway and Seven, Jadziah and Kira. When I try to picture kindness I see Deanna Troi. When I want to embrace strength, purpose, and conviction blended with compassion I ask myself “What would Captain Picard do?”

Many people criticize the sorts of work people like me do with geek culture. It’s just a damn show for crissake they’ll say, belittling the conversations we have about whether or not such-and-such show or film is sexist or homophobic. Who cares if Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a problem with consent? Why bother getting all bent out of shape over Whedon’s infertility = monster in Avengers: Age of Ultron? Why care about the way women die in comic book adaptations?

This post is my answer: because media matters. I was fortunate that I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek. I could have been imbibing shows with much more toxic masculinity, misogyny, and homophobia than I did, but instead I was gifted with a story whose main focus is trying to show us what we could be like at our very human best.

Photo by Scott Cresswell