On Tooth Fairies and Whimsy
Humans have adapted a quirky way of framing natural occurrences that are novel or frightening in the lives and minds of our children. Take, for example, the Tooth Fairy: a chomper loosens itself from our gums in a potentially painful and bloody manner, and we celebrate the coming-of-age with a tiny nymph that will flutter into your bedroom at night in order to exchange the ivory treasure for a quarter (or is it $1+ these days?). What a whimsical way to cushion the trauma of biological change! At some point, the child may wisen up and realize that the Tooth Fairy hangs out in a fictional fantasy land with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but they play along all the same. It’s willful roleplay, what we refer to in the theatre as “Suspension of Disbelief.” We hand control over to our imagination in order to convert pain into play. How delightful.
So then, why is it that we lose that sense of whimsy as we enter adulthood? How would I have handled my MS diagnosis differently if it had been presented as a visit from the Myelin Magpie? You know, the striking and gregarious bird that flies into our minds to stake their territorial claim! As an intelligent bird, they force our brains to establish new neural pathways which, in turn, increase our own intelligence! And! Their beautiful plumage inspires us to see more beauty in the world! What’s more?!? We celebrate the occasion with… PIE!!!!
But, no. I digested that irreversible diagnosis with stubborn stoicism. That’s how adult strength should look, right? That’s certainly what all of the cultural context from society taught me. So that became the story that I told myself: put on your armor - your brain is going to war with your body.
And there it is. The strongman mentality that predominantly steered my psychological response to health upsets and obstacles.
About 18 months ago, I suffered a fall. I had awoken in the middle of the night and needed to relieve myself. In rising from my bed, I vaguely remember being dizzy, weak, and not fully awake - nor fully healthy. Just a few weeks prior, I had fumbled my way through a particularly challenging dosey-do with Covid-19 and I was still working towards recovery. Upon reaching the doorway to my bathroom, physics tested me. And gravity won. Maybe I tripped on the slight level shift to the bathroom tile. Maybe my foot drop caused a faulty step. Maybe my weak legs simply gave out; maybe it was inertia; maybe it was half-sleepwalking clumsiness. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Honestly, we will never know why I fell. But, nevertheless, I saw myself crashing down in slow motion. Then, sharply…
I made contact with the bathroom sink, blunting the impact with my front teeth. Neurotransmitters fired in my brain to anesthetize the pain as I picked up the shard of my tooth with now wide-awake wonder. From there, I developed an ongoing emotional cocktail of grief, shame, and resentment. Despite the dental magic that later filled in my smile without a hint of damage, I would retell the occurrence with the acidic tint of negativity. The gap in my forced smile was a battle scar - evidence of a fight that I was losing, in a war that I didn’t ask for. At least, that’s the story I was telling myself.
Our personal narratives hold so much power. Thanks to some inspirational reading from authors including Glennon Doyle, Brené Brown, & others, I’ve started to acknowledge and address this phenomenon with greater scrutiny and grace. As it turns out, reframing a narrative from one of victimhood to one of possibility is an amazing gift to yourself and to others. This circles back to the liberating creativity of whimsy and imagination. If we make believe that an occurrence is dire, we become a tragedy. If we make believe that an occurrence is shameful, we become a cautionary tale. But if we make believe that an occurrence is sunny, joyous, or even humorous, we can become the resilient and empowered protagonist in our own stories.
Fast forward to May of 2023. I’m out to lunch with a good friend, catching up about life, work, and rest when, after taking a scrumptious bite from my BLT, I notice a strange sensation in my mouth. Somehow, the chewing feels different. Gummier, if that’s possible. And then I realize: my filler has broken off. I look up at my friend, who asks me what my weird expression is for - and I give her my biggest, brightest, gappiest smile before we both break into hysterical laughter at the humor of the situation. There was no shame. No resentment. Only joy.
Perhaps the Myelin Magpie hangs out with the Tooth Fairy after all…