Teachings of the Toothbrush

I have a terrible confession to make. My entire life, I have been bad at brushing my teeth. I’m bad at habit-forming in general, the one-two punch of bipolar disorder and ADHD makes consistency very hard to attain, but I’ve always been fairly ashamed of how bad I am at brushing my teeth. It’s such a basic question of hygiene, it should be intuitive. But for me, it wasn’t.

Until a week ago.

I went to the dentist two weeks ago, and they told me that besides a small cavity I had developed fairly serious gingivitis. They had told me this information before, but this time they emphasised pointedly that if I did not change my habits I ran the risk of infection and tooth loss. The word “necrotic” came up, and that made me listen. Necrosis, or the death of flesh before the death of the entire body, is one of my greatest fears. It’s about as close as one can be to being an actual zombie, complete with the smell of corpse.

I was given some medicinal mouthwash to use every night, and I was also told to go buy a Sonicare© electric toothbrush. By the weekend I had this brand new electric toothbrush, and I used it for the first time that Sunday night. This may sound slightly pathetic, but one of the reasons I never developed a good toothbrushing habit is that a typical toothbrush is actually to some degree physically difficult for me to use. I have very bad joints, and spending two minutes with my arm in repetitive rapid motion, while not debilitating, was uncomfortable. However, with the electric toothbrush, brushing my teeth became easy.

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Something that was beneficial to me was easy. A good habit was easy. Here’s the thing- I grew up thinking that everything worth doing should be hard. People who work hard, were, by definition, better than people who did not work hard. The harder the work, the more admirable the person. The more work required, the better. Difficulty equated to morality. Easy, conversely, might as well have meant immoral. This was not a conscious framing, but it was an impulse or an association that got planted deep inside me at a young age by the Protestant/Puritanical culture of America and more specifically the Mormon variant of that culture that is so prevalent in Utah.

I feel almost foolish writing that I went twenty-three years, until yesterday, still with that impulse guiding my actions. However, with the electric toothbrush, I discovered that something objectively good for you and not necessarily pleasurable could be really easy. I’ve brushed my teeth every day for the past week and a half. I brushed my teeth in the midst of a depressive episode. That may not sound like much, but it’s a longer span of time consistently brushing my teeth than I’ve ever had in my entire life. And it’s because easy does not mean bad. Easy does not mean lazy. Easy just means easy.

I gave myself a set of rules, a hierarchy of productivity. Because I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out how to healthily function on a day to day basis, notwithstanding my periods of mania and my periods of depression. A baseline that never falters. With this hierarchy of productivity, I think I may have given myself the tools to actually do it.

1st- Do what is easy and good for you. It is easy to clean a single dish. To brush your teeth. To put a single pair of socks away or to put a single book back on the shelf. Easy things are often small things, but you can always find some easy things to do to say clean a room or finish a project. Pick up the clothes first when you want to clean. Write the introductory paragraph. Do one small thing. And then another. And do…

2nd- Do what is feasible. Some days this will only mean what is truly easy. If you are sick, depressed, in pain, or very tired this may just mean basic hygiene and drinking enough water. And that’s okay. But other days, feasible may mean reorganising a room. It may mean deep-cleaning the kitchen. If harder work is feasible that day, get it done right away. You’ll thank yourself for not putting it off.

3rd- Do what is best. This is at the bottom of the hierarchy because it’s not always possible to do the best thing for yourself. It may be best to go on an hour-long jog every morning, but if it’s unfeasible, don’t sweat it. Sometimes the easiest thing can be the best thing, such as brushing your teeth.

This hierarchy may seem obvious or laughable. But for someone with executive dysfunction like myself, for people with chronic pain, chronic depression, ADHD, and many others, to whom the basic task of life don’t come easily or naturally, this can be a lifesaver.

There is a Chinese fable that neatly encapsulates the underlying point of this hierarchy, “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountains”. It concerns an elderly peasant whose farm was perpetually in the shade of two great mountains. Longing for more sunlight, the man took a shovel and began to dig away the mountains, shovelful by shovelful. He was of course laughed at by other farmers, who told him “you can’t possibly dig out those mountains in your lifetime, you old fool.”

“I know,” he replied, “but I can move some part of them. And my sons will carry on my work. And their sons as well. One day, the mountains will be moved.”

In the fable, the Emperor of Heaven is so moved by the old man’s dedication that he sends down angels to carry the mountains away. One could read this as praise of hard, repetitive work for the hope of some nebulous reward, very in line with the Protestant ethic that sober and difficult work will be rewarded by admission into heaven. But to me, that interpretation misses the point. The old man saw the mountains not as an enormous impossible whole, but as collections of single shovelfuls of dirt and rocks. He learned to see the impossible in possible terms, the daunting work as a series of easy steps.

We can move mountains, even if it’s just a pebble at a time.

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