Living in Society

We Hold These Truths

Edge of Lake Macbride, April 17, 2022.

I had the second discussion of what to do about missing tooth #14 at a recent, routine dental appointment. The same dentist who extracted it answered my questions. I don’t plan to get an implant or a bridge to cover the gap. I’ll be gap-toothed, I guess.

I recounted my experience working as an admissions clerk at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry where what seemed like a lot of patients complained of dental implants gone wrong. Doc said cultural aspects of getting and living with an implant were as important as proper use of the technology. In other words, many implant patients are part of their own problem.

This conversation is basic to being an American. There is the idea of something and the actuality of that same thing. The idea of a dental implant and the loading and living with one are culturally separate. Increasingly, Americans seem more focused on ideas, to the extent the social context in which ideas are found is one of neglect, misinformation and bad habits. Hence failed dental implants and other things.

On several occasions people said to me of their decaying teeth, “I’m going to yank them all and get plates.” One hoped such yanking was done by an oral surgeon rather than in the tool shed or kitchen with common household pliers. There were a share of folks who took the tool shed approach to relieving tooth pain. It created more business for our clinic to remove broken roots their pliers couldn’t reach.

The distinction between ideas and their social context is applicable to things besides dentistry. For example, we know we should moderate simple carbohydrates in our diet to prevent onset of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. There is a science to this. At the same time it is easy to prepare a simple spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil) at home when pinched for dinner. It’s cheap and tastes good if properly prepared. It can seem convenient to order take-out pasta or pizza from a restaurant via GrubHub or Uber Eats without regard for portion size. Moderation is in remission in American society.

What makes American society frustrating is we live in the actuality of ideas developed and promulgated by others. Some of the ideas coming out of media figureheads and politicians are outrageous. What people do based on such ideas affects us all.

We feel little ownership of ideas prominent in our lives. Our country is based on ideas in a certain world view. When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, the first seven words of the second paragraph spoke to their world view, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” There were truths and it was possible to know them and verify them: they were self-evident. If most founders believed there was a God, the new nation was not founded in religion. Quite the opposite. Following the philosophy of John Locke, human understanding considered the natural world, rendering any relationship with God unknowable and unverified. What was true was evident in the natural world and could be observed if one had the will and mental acuity. We’ve entered a realm where any idea can be viewed with suspicion regardless of its inherent, observable truth.

As I told my dentist, the missing tooth is not depriving me of nutrition. Its position is far enough back so I don’t appear to be a gap-toothed fool when I smile. A missing tooth is not what I wanted. The truth is I can go on living in the American experiment.