Sunday, September 4, 2016


As one who works broadly in the field of religion, I'm usually nervous about admitting my profession to total strangers. While the response that follows can range from the grating to the ingratiating, it is almost certain to be colorful, and to require a response. There is the instant smirk of the default secularist, for one, who doesn't realize that many Unitarians were disbelieving in God before it became fashionable. They will typically start in with a question about a higher power (and people really do just gun straight for this, you'd be amazed, five minutes after meeting you), and if I am feeling playful, I may warm to the role for a little bit in response, perhaps pulling some infuriating liberal divinity school maneuver along the lines of well, it depends; what is your definition of.... If I just want to be myself for the day, however, I will try on them the line "Actually, I'm an atheist." And in response I usually get, after a stretch of blankness: "Oh, are you one of those 'spiritual but not religious' people?" -- this being the last remaining conceptual category in which to fit me. Nope! Try again! (My dad, a fellow practitioner, suggested when I told him this story that I could perhaps better be described as "religious but not spiritual.")

More rattling than the demand to explain one's most vital convictions about the nature of the universe and humankind's place in it to people one has never met before, however, is the opposite encounter, in which someone asks you to perform a religious rite from their own, vastly different tradition -- some sacrament with which you may have only the slightest familiarity, and that from TV or movies, but which -- you suddenly start to worry -- is essential to the other person's spiritual succor. I have been addressed as "Father" by people twice my age, and I imagine I felt something in response like what a tax attorney would feel if they were suddenly appointed counsel for a criminal trial, or what a medical doctor would experience if asked to solve a recondite riddle in homeopathy.Yes-- positive or negative, flattering or furious, the immediate and unselfconscious feedback one receives upon declaring oneself to be "a minister" always seems to keep one on one's toes. 

Whether this encounter is hostile or -- to the contrary -- demands of you a greater competence and spiritual maturity than you think of yourself as possessing, however, both kinds of response spring from the same emotional source: this tendency we all still have, even in our increasingly unchurched society, to endow the religious professional with a mysterious potency -- a kind of force field. We approach them with "fear and trembling," but also with a belief that they will hear and answer our petitions when other hopes fail. I find myself performing this same mental calculation whenever I see Buddhist monks in their saffron robes at the airport, or a friar in his habit, or a Quaker in plain clothes. "Oh good, they're on my side!" I think, absurdly. Even if one doesn't rush up to them at once and begin pouring out one's heart, one feels that one could, and that they would have to show solicitude for one's soul.

Therapists and social workers carry around in their person something of the same unbidden power, though they are less visibly identifiable. As the narrator of the novel-within-the-novel in The Golden Notebook thinks when she meets a psychiatrist at a party, and finds him reticent on the subject of what he does for a living:
“She knew the reluctance was because he did not want from her the obvious response. What the response was she knew because she had felt a leap inside herself of relief and interest, an uneasy interest because he was a witch-doctor, possessed of all sorts of knowledge about her. She said quickly: 'Oh, I’m not going to tell you my troubles.'"
It's a very strange thing when it happens to you, however, who are so obviously unworthy of such fond expectations. How bizarre to be oneself -- to go around in your enclosed mind with all your usual anxious and self-centered thoughts, to understand to your own satisfaction the distinction between being a "student minister" and someone who has the full "Reverend" before their name, and that you are only the former -- and then to emerge from this tunnel to realize that another person is looking to you as an elevated being, who must be of aid. They may, and probably do, see you as an eccentric, but for that very reason you are somehow set apart, in their eyes. Even the most ill-tempered secularists who sharply grill you about your life choices are acknowledging as much, in spite of themselves. They wouldn't feel entitled to behave with what would -- in most settings -- be considered pretty bad manners to a complete stranger, if they didn't believe that you were in fact not a stranger at all, by virtue of being a minister -- that in truth you "possess[...] all sorts of knowledge about [them]," as Doris Lessing puts it -- presumably because you have already read their name and destiny on the scroll provided to you by the celestial powers -- and that you will ultimately be required to listen to their raging with patience and forbearance, much as God kept his covenant with Abraham in spite of the latter's remonstrations.

All of which makes one feel that one ought to actually be such a higher being, or at least make more of an effort. It gives one, as they say, a lot to live up to.

Sometimes one just doesn't feel up to the performance, however, so, like Lessing's psychiatrist, you try not to announce your profession to a new audience until it is forcibly dragged out of you -- and meanwhile you thank "whatever gods may be" that you do not have to wear a uniform in your calling. (Which makes you wonder how the monks do it. A practical benefit of cloistering, I guess).

There are at least two other sources of relief from the tension of being cast in a more elevated role than one realizes one deserves, however, apart from dissimulating. One is to retreat to the company of people who knew you long before you attained witch-doctor status, and in whose eyes you are therefore never at risk of attaining too exaggerated an estimation. The other is far rarer, and therefore more to be treasured. This is when one finds, out of all people of the world, a natural shaman -- a person with whom one can converse as an equal. Sometimes they are devotees of Rudolf Steiner, other times practitioners of astral projection -- but always when one meets them, one feels an automatic kinship in the presence of another of the world's slightly cracked vessels. They are the oddballs, like oneself, whom societies the world over have always found ways of accommodating (and even of empowering, albeit with a most unusual sort of power) so long as they agree to set themselves at a distance from their fellows by taking on the religious mantle (some societies have even required they remove themselves from the gene pool). 


I knew I was in the presence of such a one during a recent cab ride in Boston, when my driver turned around to inform me in a Persian accent that Every part of human body is allegory for the spiritual. This came some time after his declaration that he had founded a new religion (one that -- inevitably -- encompasses all other religions) but before he told me that he had built a machine that cures all known diseases. In his company I was immediately at my ease, as if relaxing some long-tensed muscle. I leaned in to hear more, thinking I want to know everything, but saying only, "Really?" His were not the kinds of statements I'd let pass until I'd gotten to the bottom of them all. I did everything short of take notes.

I was readily provided with examples of the spiritual allegories he had in mind. There was, for instance, his account of the symbolic import of the mouth. You remember the story of Noah's ship, yes? What was the ship? he asked. "The ark!" I piped up from the back seat. Yes, that is the tongue. And when you are hungry and you see something good to eat, something happens in your mouth. What is this? "You salivate!" I said, delighted to be getting all the answers. The discharge of one's saliva glands turned out to symbolize the waters of the flood (or was it the other way around? Since surely mouths predate the diluvian era?). And the teeth, he said at last, what do they look like? And he gnashed his jaws in my direction, his lips splayed outward. This time, I was at a loss. They are the waves. Presumably, the white crests on the stormy seas that once submerged mankind. "Ah," I said, as if it had all come clear. I hasten to add that there was nothing about him that suggested psychosis -- just mysticism, which -- contrary to what is sometimes said by the scoffers -- is not easily mistaken for the former in practice.

When we got to the end of the interpretation, I felt the sort of disappointment one usually does when one is finally in the presence of the mysteries, and the content of the gnosis is revealed. It's hard for the higher truths to fully live up to the hype that precedes them, and one always wants the occult sciences to be based on something more solid than sympathetic magic -- like, say, cause and effect -- only to find that if they were, they probably would have migrated into the canons of more mainstream thought by this point. 

On the other hand, his explanations seemed to make as much sense as what little I knew about Origen or the Kabbalah -- maybe it came from some ancient commentary or the Zohar, by a circuitous route. And it was enough to get me thinking about the spiritual content of my own teeth, which, whether they look like waves or not, have certainly troubled my waters in the past, and which I suppose symbolize as much as anything -- or perhaps directly contributed to -- my ending up with the historic community of cranks and oddballs that is the people of the cloth. My teeth, like the priest and the shaman, are somewhat out of joint.


These teeth of mine have been a source of pretty much constant grief, ever since they came into my head. For as long as I can remember, my lower jaw has jutted out a bit too far, and ever so slightly to the side, like a drawer that has gotten off one of its rails and can no longer be pushed all the way back in. The result is that the tips of my two rows of teeth have never actually met in the front by touch. Estranged at birth, they have only been able to signal one another across an unbridgeable chasm of about an eighth- to a quarter-inch long.

The teeth themselves-- as in, the actually ivories that populate my two jaws-- have had their modest share of cavities, but they have basically been kept in good repair. And this is what always struck me as most unfair about my situation. It wasn't that I was such a bad caretaker of my teeth, as these things go. I hadn't left them yellowing or rotten or flaking with plaque. The fundamental problem with my teeth was not dental, strictly speaking -- would that it were so easy! It belonged, rather to the domain of the Orthodontist, which gradually became the most frightening word in my childhood's vocabulary -- the chief bogeyman among all the many resented professionals who were forever prying and shampooing and sticking and prodding my uncomprehending form. (These poor specialists. They are cursed to always be operating on people who only remember the pain they caused, and who take for granted whatever good it accomplished.) Just hearing that I had an Orthodontist appointment coming up could easily spoil an entire week for me. This led my mom to start springing them on me the afternoon of, to save me the long escalation of anticipatory dread, but this just made them seem all the more sinister, for occasionally coming upon one unawares. (All this despite the fact that, of course, the actual orthodontists in my life were uniformly pleasant people.)

At some point or other growing up I had just about every one of the infamous devices of the orthodontist's art strapped into my head. My mouth was a universe of clamps, screws, and wires. Perhaps the contraption that appeared most outwardly diabolical -- for it most discomfortingly resembled a Medieval instrument of torture -- was a metal "spider" (as it was lovingly nicknamed) that was mounted onto the roof of my mouth and was used to expand the width of my upper jaw. It only worked, however, if my poor parents -- enlisted in this joyless task -- placed a key into a screw in the center of the device a few times a week and gave the rack a couple turns. 

This one didn't bother me all that much, however, since it was not visible from the outside (and didn't actually hurt, dramaturgy aside). The real torment of orthodontia was after all never physical, but emotional -- it was the abject terror of having to present in public with either a deformed jaw or a metal contraption on my face, and of being informed in so many words every time I went to the orthodontist's office that I was faced with pretty much these two choices, and no others. 

Like countless kids before me, I went through the braces phase in middle school -- first with rubber bands, and later without. The bands, I assume, were supposed to gradually haul the resisting barge of my lower jaw back into port, but they seem to have had little effect. That jaw was incorrigible, we all realized, and so, I quickly inferred, was I. By the time my freshman year of college came around, they had reached the conclusion that my jaw was so hopeless we needed to pursue the drastic solution of reconstructive surgery, which would involve several months of having my mouth wired shut and taking my meals through a straw. This happy pinnacle could only be reached, however, if I first submitted to a year of corrective work to straighten out my teeth again -- meaning another round of braces. I refused categorically, however, to put on the same wire-mesh travesty I had worn in seventh grade. I would not, I swore, be an already pimply and socially awkward nineteen-year-old starting college at a school that A.J. Liebling had once called "the greatest magnet for neurotic juveniles since the Children's Crusade" and have wire braces on my teeth at the same time -- that was too much even to be justified by the later caustic self-satire and lifetime of artistically fruitful insecurities that might result. 

So I talked them down instead to those ostensibly "invisible" alignment-correctors that are now available to the specialists, though they warned me against them for being slower to yield results. I did not care how long they took, however, so long as they were unnoticeable to my peers, which I was assured they would be. The "trays" themselves seemed inconspicuous enough, after all. What they don't show you in the TV ads, though, is that these transparent plastic moulds are not mounted directly onto one's teeth, but onto a row of white knobs that are glued for this purpose onto your enamel. Knobs that other people -- curse their keen eyes! -- are in fact perfectly able to perceive. 

After a year or so of running my frustrated tongue over these awful stubs, I decided to exercise that noblest prerogative of the legal adult -- that of making bad, short-sighted decisions just because one can -- and demand that the orthodontist scrape the things off and that we forgo the surgery.

None of it ever worked, by the way, not even a bit. Almost as soon as the supposedly "invisible" evidence of my secret shame had been scrubbed away, my teeth sprang back into their usual crooked posture, as if obeying an inner impulse toward misrule. My upper jaw, meanwhile, may be wider than it would otherwise have been, but my lower one still hangs at an angle. 

And all of this, I hasten to add, is quite obviously and genuinely my fault, not the fault of the orthodontists. I never did any of the things I was supposed to do. I put in my various "retainers" a total of about five times, all told, before permanently shelving them, and very soon I couldn't even get them over my teeth again, because these had already returned to their relaxed attitude. Similarly, I decided not to do the surgery, even though the professionals had been trying to convince me of its absolute necessity since I was eleven or twelve years old. 


As a preteen, you see, I had been walked through an escalating series of warnings about what would happen if I let my skeleton grow to full maturity without getting my "problem" taken care of. My lower jaw would stick ever further out, I was assured, and my upper jaw recede still further inward. Presumably my brow would collapse as well, rendering me a twenty-first century Neanderthal. 

This, I was half-informed, and half imagined for myself, would be my inevitable tragic fate, if I did not submit to surgery at some point around my twenty-first year. And so as I grew, I felt the years ticking away with a sense of gathering doom, something like the Beast in his tower seeing the petals gradually fall from his rose, counting down the time that was left to him before it would be too late ever to transform back into a beautiful prince.

This was the future I imagined for myself for years, and it was totally real to me. The ape-faced protagonists of Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick left an uneasy impression on my high school mind, presumably because they seemed a harbinger of my own destiny. For years I could barely stand to make it through the episode of the Simpsons in which Lisa gets braces, as the scene in which she is presented with slides of her gradually mutating visage, projected into the future, hit far too close to home to be recognized as satire. What was a joke on the Simpsons was really going to happen to me, I was convinced, and fear of it was never entirely absent from my subconscious mind, even when it was not in my waking thoughts. I am told that the dream of feeling one's teeth loosening and falling out of one's head is a common one -- associated with insecurity about one's appearance -- but I think I probably had it more often than most. To this day, when I am feeling particularly self-conscious in a new situation, I will begin to use my thumb to press upon the front teeth of my lower jaw -- this being a long-established tic carried over from childhood that began as a literal effort to shove my jaw back into a more agreeable shape, but which -- as with many folk customs-- has remained with me long after its original motive was forgotten. It has become spiritualized. 

Then there was the fact that other people -- or enough of them, at any rate, to furnish me with selective evidence to confirm my worst anxieties -- did occasionally notice and comment disparagingly on my teeth. And if the nasty ones were just coming out and saying it, then how many nice ones must be thinking the same things but are too polite to admit it? I would think. Our insecurities have a bizarre way of broadcasting themselves, so that the bullying and the cruel and those who want to deflect attention from their own embarrassments seem to know exactly the spot to aim for. It is as if we give off a scent that attracts predators. 

David Rakoff tells a story that illustrates well this mysterious aptness of the world's cruelties in one of his essay collections, Fraud. He was sitting alone in a movie theater as a struggling young writer who worked in publishing, and already was feeling distinctly beset by a sense of insignificance, and doubts as to whether he would ever amount to anything in New York. A woman descended upon him in the midst of these ruminations, pointed to his chest, and asked him if anyone was sitting there. In the seat, that is, where he was sitting. "It was the perfect moment for that time in my life," he writes. "I mean that, of course, in the worse possible way."

I've had a few such awfully perfect moments in my life as well, and always they have centered on my teeth. In my freshman year of college, at some stage of the operations that installed the not-so-invisible-after-all hooks on my enamel, I was left sitting in the hygienist's chair with my mouth held open by clamps and cotton wads while she left to retrieve some necessary instrument. When she had been at work on my teeth earlier, I had overheard the commentary on everyone around him of a lanky thirteen-year-old named Wesley, who from his name on down just breathed trouble out of every pore. I sat there, exposed, the hygienist not there to protect me, silently praying Please don't come over here, Please don't come over here. Of course, he did. Perched on gangly legs, he strode over to my helpless form as I, open-mouthed in spite of myself, stared back. "I don't know what's wrong with you, but I hope it never happens to me," he said. 

Then in my first year of divinity school, a time when, despite being twenty-two years old (because of, actually), I felt as defenseless and friendless as I had on the first day of kindergarten, I was sitting one day on a curb on Beacon Hill, getting ready to lead a tour through the local sites of Unitarian Universalist history -- and feeling not at all up to the task already -- when a perfect stranger passed by and told me, apropos of nothing, "You have Transylvanian teeth." Huh? I asked. He said it again, "Transylvanian teeth," and ran his finger along his upper jaw, so as to indicate the contrast between his own set of pearlies and the disjuncture he had in mind. It turned out he was touring with a Unitarian from Transylvania, which presumably was why we both happened to be on Beacon Street that day, and why this odd and unprovoked line of attack presented itself to his mind. It was as if I had somehow been wearing a sign on my back. Hi everyone, I'm a Unitarian who's nervous about leading a tour group and insecure about his appearance -- especially his teeth!


It's hard now to remember -- let alone convey -- exactly why all of this was such a big deal. But there was to me a real hopelessness about my situation, especially as a child and teenager; and much of what little I know today about the feelings of futility, powerlessness, the sense of being caught in the toils of something beyond one's control, comes from my childhood's relationship to my own uncooperative teeth-- and to the various corrective professionals who hammered and sawed away at them over the years. Of course, such a statement may sound very much like the "self-pity" that Orwell warned against as the most common besetting demon of childhood autobiography; and I recognize that many people's families would not have been able to afford the orthodontia in the first place, in order to be terrorized by it, and thus might say "I wish I had your problems," or something to that effect. Yet kids have no way of accessing this kind of larger perspective, and they don't form the same judgments we do as to which of their fears are justified and which are unrealistic. If anything, in fact, I think I am understating here the extent of the misery I felt as a kid on account of my teeth -- that special, unconsolable misery that only children can feel. I am reassured, moreover, that my childhood reaction to my dental travails is not so terribly exaggerated by the fact that Arthur Koestler -- who went on to survive concentration camps and fascist prisons; in short, to have a great deal more to worry about than the likes of me ever do -- nevertheless associates his concept of Ahor (a central motif of his memoirs, a kind of embodiment of evil, being a shortened form of "ancient horror") not with any of the adult atrocities he endured, but with a childhood visit to the dentist. 

Perhaps the worst part of my various tooth-related problems as a youngster, however, was the loneliness that resulted -- the conviction, shared by all insecure teenagers, that I was the only insecure teenager in the world. I was persuaded not only that I possessed a loathsome deformity that everyone must immediately notice as soon as they saw me, but also that it was a totally unique affliction, and I was the very first person ever to endure it. 

I hoped, of course, it might be otherwise. Until quite recently-- and maybe still, and I just don't even notice it anymore -- whenever I met a new person, my eyes would immediately dart to their lower face, to check for the alignment of their jaws; searching, you see, for a brother. Yet I very seldom found one. Everywhere I went, people seemed to be smiling through perfectly aligned incisors, the upper row always smartly overtaking -- just barely -- the tips of the lower. Either they were all born superior, I had to conclude, or else they had actually worn their retainers, or sat for their surgeries, or all the others things that I was supposed to have done, but hadn't, so that now it was too late.

It might have occurred to me that, even if they had better teeth, many of the people I was meeting had plenty of other problems that were just as or more serious than mine. I might have tried to take comfort in the fact that, even if I didn't know anyone who had exactly my same jaw trouble -- and so minor, really, it was -- I knew that millions before me had endured far worse bodily, mental -- and even dental -- afflictions, and gone on to do great things. Think of Randolph Bourne (with whose essay "The Handicapped" my teenage self felt -- however implausibly -- an automatic kinship, for I too had plainly been marked off, set apart, by disfigurement, in the conceptions of my internal melodrama)! Look at Orwell, for whom "toothache" proved such a vivid shorthand for ineradicable human woe (one suspects from long and direct experience). Or Updike, with his eczema! Look at James Joyce! Stephen Dedalus is already "Toothless Kinch" by the opening of Ulysses -- and he was a literary genius, if we are to conflate him with the author, as Joyce rather invites us to do. 

But no. Ensconced in my adolescent self-absorption, I had that distinctive variety of snobbery that is the privilege of the young and suffering. Deep down, I believed that my problem was the worst, that pretty much anything would be better than what I had. Other people's problems were mere tragic occurrences, for which no one held them guilty. But my jaws were obviously my fault, and everyone knew it. They were a visible marker of my sin. 

Mentally, I would try to bargain with the gods. If I could only just have normal jaws, I could deal with anything else, I would say, to no one in particular. Toothless Kinch had nothing on me. I bet those empty gums of his were aligned, at least, even if they had nothing on top of them. And besides, toothlessness can be disguised by closing one's lips. There was however no escape from the sight of the forward-thrusting jaw, though I did experiment for hours before the mirror with various kinds of duck face that seemed to minimize its impact.

As with Toothless Kinch, so with Martin Amis, whose notoriously bad teeth, as you may recall, caused an odd literary kerfuffle in the 1990s, when he made the seemingly unobjectionable choice to use a sizable advance he had received on a book to pay for some reconstructive dental surgery. This decision, unremarkable to most Americans, was evidently perceived by his compatriots as a grotesque extravagance, in a land not generally known for its exceptional standards of oral hygiene. The tale, and the whole lifelong battle with his blistering gums and imploding molars that preceded it, is chronicled in Amis's memoir Experience, a book I read while in college and still at the height of my own struggles. Yet again, I took no pity on him; nor could I be convinced that he knew my pain. What was losing one's teeth next to having them remain so visibly disjointed in one's head?, I thought. 

On the other hand, I recognized myself in some of Amis's stratagems for daily survival and dissimulation -- the careful rationing of open smiles, for one -- and in his frantic forming of escape plans: "In some of my more tremulous fantasies," he writes, "I thought that I would slip out of the country and head off to a land -- Albania? Uzbekistan? South Wales? -- where nobody else had teeth either. [...] When I was much younger and stupider I came up with another strategy for dealing with it: suicide." (121-122) As Amis writes, this was merely "a fantasy, a way of deferring fear" (122), and while I may have been less specific than him, it is true that in response to the professionals' warnings about the chronic jaw pain and skeletal disfigurement that awaited me in my future, I nursed an unexamined hope that, somehow or other, I might not be there to see it.

In short it seemed as a teenager that life was going inevitably to hit some terminus when I reached the age of twenty-one -- this being the deadline that my team of pryers and prodders and correctors had set for the surgery. Maybe no sixteen-year-old can imagine anything much beyond 21 anyways, but to me it felt like a categorical event horizon. 

To end up refusing the surgery as I did felt therefore like a wild and desperate plunge into the unknown, perhaps even into extinction. Here I was, a mere months before my inevitable transition into grotesque Neanderthal-hood -- an occasion which I somehow conflated in my mind with death, however subconsciously -- and still I refused the proffered hand of Orthodontia to make it all better. It was a kind of heroism of intransigence. A testament to the courage of plain, dumb stubbornness, in all it's self-protecting glory. I will not  have my jaw wired shut for six months, I said. I will not take my meals through a straw. I will not wear your metal devices in my head. 

And I turned twenty-one, and, miraculously, did not undergo the transformation into an ogre. Another year went by, and another. Somehow I got to be twenty-six without ever getting that surgery that I had thought was so necessary to my survival. I'm still here. My teeth are still here. My jaws are still here.


If I search for the inner spiritual meaning of my teeth, as I was invited to do (and how few are fortunate ever to receive such an invitation!), this is what I come up with. This is the best I got. My teeth are everything that is intractable about me, everything that is inescapably, infuriatingly me. They are the awful me-ness of me, the disjointedness with everyone else -- the quality of being just a little bit our of step -- that makes each of us into our indissoluble selves. 

There was no good reason for me to end up keeping my jaw or teeth the way they are. Everyone told me not to do so. All the good advice warned against it. All of reason went against it. And how much time and effort and money was spent trying to bring about the opposite result! I was wired and braced and "spidered" and rubber-banded until my mouth was as full of technology as the bird's gullet is full of paper, in Tagore's famous parable. And it occurs to me that the moral of my story must be rather similar to the one Tagore drew -- the efforts to educate the parrot ultimately fail, just as my teeth and jaw remain as they always have been, in all their disunion.

This is the truth that thankfully upends all programmatic efforts at reform, all tyrannical attempts to save, redeem, or educate human nature -- especially the nature of children. This is what reassures us that the multitudinous attempts that are made to fix us will eventually come to nothing, and that the pokers and prodders and pullers and pedagogues who populate the lives of children -- while they may manage to make kids miserable and mutinous -- will never succeed in changing who they are -- at least not for long. We are all of us, at heart, incorrigible. John Stuart Mill may learn his Greek, but he will eventually have a breakdown for it. The child who is put through a decade of violin lessons will forget which hand to hold the bow in when she escapes to college almost as quickly as my teeth slid back into their uneven status quo ante when I got my braces off. We are each of us hopelessly ourselves, and will never be anyone else. As John Davidson puts it:

And it's this way that I make it out to be: 
No fathers, mothers, countries, climates -- none;
Not Adam was responsible for me,
Nor society, nor systems, nary one:
A little sleeping seed, I woke [...]
And everywhere I found myself at home,
Because I chose to be the thing I was; [...]
My weakness and my strength without a doubt
Are mine alone for ever from the first[.]

As a teenager, this is a terrifying realization -- there is a cascading loneliness in finding that one is, after all, a self. "Why should I be […] me, or anyone? […]How--I didn’t know any/ word for it--how 'unlikely'. . ." as Elizabeth Bishop writes in "In the Waiting Room." So, as a teen, one is always casting around for the perfect double -- or triple or quadruple -- who might prove it otherwise. Like me looking for someone with the same detested underbite -- if I could find only one fellow sufferer, and not be so alone!

At age twenty-six, by contrast, and a graduate of divinity school, one can't imagine anything worse that discovering that, after all, one is just like everyone else. A weirdness and distinctiveness that is willingly put on, as a kind of cross, is exactly what one went looking for in one's theological education, whether one realized it at the time or not -- and it is certainly what one found. Keeping one's bad teeth and bad jaws is something like having visions, or donning a religious habit.

In short, as one approaches that fabled thing "maturity," and as one even starts to learn how to feel on a semi-consistent basis that gradually materializing thing happiness, one realizes that -- in contradiction to everything one prayed for so fervently through all one's miserable adolescence-- one wouldn't actually trade in one's teeth, or one's self, for another if one could. And gladly, one can't -- that is what I've been driving at -- so the point is moot.

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