Most everyone has heard the expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” This assertion has been challenged by the Atheists in Foxholes organization, which points out that many in the armed forces identify themselves as “no religion.”
This morning I proved a related assertion: there are agnostics in dentist’s chairs. Now, I’ll admit that having some crown/bridge work redone isn’t quite as dramatic as being in a Vietnam firefight, as this atheist in a foxhole was.
Nonetheless, when the drilling starts and you don’t know how much pain there will be, you’re looking for support from somewhere.
During my devotional days I’d try to adopt the attitude that a dental visit was God’s will, part of my bad teeth karma. I’d repeat the mantra given to me by my guru and do my best to enter into a relaxed “thy will be done” attitude.
Today I felt just as calm, cool, and collected. Yet the Brian whose mouth was open for well over an hour was an agnostic, not a believer. I felt no need to lean on a higher power. Reality was my mainstay.
“What has to happen is happening,” I told myself. “Accept it.” And I did. I found that it helped to focus on my one-syllable mantra, if only to keep myself from worrying about how much decay would be found once the malfunctioning crowns/bridge were removed.
I couldn’t remember Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic words precisely, but awareness of his general philosophical perspective brought me some peace of mind as I reclined in the dental chair.
Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. “How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!” By no means; say rather, “How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.” The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered.
…So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not, “This is a misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.”
The Stoics didn’t believe in a personal God. Yet Marcus Aurelius derived great strength and meaning from a philosophy that most people today would call ungodly (and even more, unchristian).
Belief in a higher power isn’t necessary to live life honestly, decently, and courageously. Stoics consider that God is immanent in all created things, but has no separate existence outside them. Thus the strength to endure difficult situations will be found within, not without.
A similar attitude is found among the Atheists in Foxholes advocates. A Newsweek article quotes Master Sgt. Kathleen Johnson, who was about to be sent to Iraq: "A lot of people manage to serve without having to call on a higher power."
I’ve got to go back to the dentist on Thursday for what was billed to me as a simple and likely painless root canal, after which the replacement crown/bridge work can be done. I might be doing some calling between now and then. But it won’t be to God.
It’ll be to VISA to make sure that my credit limit is high enough to pay for the absurdly large amount all this is costing me.