Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Change Hurts (or What I learned from getting braces at 36)

For Christmas this year I got braces. My wife doesn’t think it’s a big deal.

“Josh, lots of people have braces”
“Yeah, in middle school! I’m 36.”

Photo Credit (Creative Commons)

Photo Credit (Creative Commons)

This is actually my second time getting braces. About 25 years ago, I got braces to close a large gap between my top middle teeth. Afterwards, they gave me a retainer to spread out my bottom teeth. I lost it. My parents insisted I had to replace it out of my own pocket. I didn’t want to. Now, years later, I’m paying.

As I lay in the orthodontist chair, the nurse informed me of the process I was about to undergo.

“Your teeth will hurt for a few days as they adjust to the braces.”
I expected as much.
“No eating hard candy or nuts.”
What! No nuts for a year and half. I love nuts.
“No biting your sandwich. Tear off a piece and eat it like that.” She mimed eating a torn piece of sandwich as she spoke. It looked as goofy as I assumed it would.
I love sandwiches. I mean, I really love sandwiches.
“Your braces will sometimes cut the inside of your cheeks. You can put some wax on them.”

The nurse left and the orthodontist came over to begin gluing the braces to my teeth. After an uncomfortable two hours sitting with my mouth open, my grill was metallic.

“I think we will put some rubber bands on to speed up the process. Just change them every 12 hours.”
Great, something else to remember to do.
“One more thing.”
The orthodontist put some substance on my back molars. When I tried to close my mouth it wouldn’t shut. My teeth didn’t touch.
“Um,” I slurred, “I can’t close my jaw.”
“Well, to reposition your teeth, I need to keep your teeth from touching.”
“How am I supposed to eat?”
“You’ll figure it out. You have to chew with your back molars.”
Suddenly, my future flashed before my eyes—a nutless, sandwich tearing, awkward chewing future.
“How long until I will be able to close my jaw all the way again?”
I can do anything for a few weeks, I thought.
“Around nine months.”
The reality of braces pierced me like a dental drill to the head. I was paying someone to make my life miserable.

I am not sure why I expected braces not to invade my normal life. I was paying the orthodontist to rearrange my teeth, to change the shape of my jaw, to correct years of crooked growth. Why did I expect the change to be painless?

Isn’t that how I think about change in other parts of my life, though? I want to change. I am willing to pay for it. But I expect the transformation to happen without causing me discomfort or altering my life.

True change doesn’t happen that way.

There is no change without pain.
There is no change without discomfort.
There is no change without life-adjustments.
There is no change without giving something up.
There is no change without starting something new.
There is no change without waiting.
There is no change without embarrassment.
There is no change without cost.
There is no change without lying on a dental chair for two hours with someone else’s fingers in your mouth.

Perhaps we need adjust our expectations.

Photo Credit David Lee King (Creative Commons)

Photo Credit David Lee King (Creative Commons)

Two days later my wife and I and some friends were playing Christmas carols for the British embassy in an old Catholic church. The inside of my mouth was swollen and sore. The metallic taste of the braces mixed with the metallic flavor of blood. We were singing old British Christmas carols without a microphone. My lips worked hard to pronounce each mutli-syllabic word and the wires cut away at my cheeks. “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen . . .”

Afterwards, we went to the Ambassador’s house for minced pie and mulled wine. I felt insecure. I couldn’t yet control my saliva. My teeth hurt too much to bite through the crisp shell of the pies. At least I could drink the wine.

I tried to avoid talking to people, but I knew I would need to greet the Ambassador at some point in the evening. I imagined the scenario—drool slipping out of the corner of my mouth as I slur out a thank you.

“Shthank you, Mishter Ambashador.” I pictured minced pie residue shooting from my mouth and landing on his expensive suit.

At last the time came to leave and I made my way to the Ambassador to thank him. We shook hands. He said some kind words. I responded appropriately. And then, we headed home.

My greatest fears were not realized. My teeth hurt. I felt uncomfortable. But life went on.

Isn’t it the same with change? Transformation brings pain and discomfort but never to the degree we fear. It hurts us but it does not destroy us. This is how we learn to embrace change. Much like I am learning to embrace my metal and wires. Not because I love them, but because I love the transformation they bring.

What change do you need to embrace? How do you need to adjust your expectations for change? (Let me know in the comments)

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