“Have you ever seen a dock at low tide? That’s what your teeth will look like if you don’t floss.” My dentist said these words to me two weeks ago in the midst of the most compelling lecture on flossing I’ve ever heard.
After I graduated from college, my dad took me out to dinner with a handful of his friends. I asked them all what words of wisdom they wished they had been given years ago when they graduated. There was a uniform response: “Floss!” No career or money-management wisdom, no deep truths about relationships. Gum health trumped all such topics of conversation that night. I took note. And on the rare occasions that I’ve remembered their advice, I’ve obeyed. But that doesn’t mean it ever became a daily habit – honestly it was more like weekly – hence why my dentist found it necessary to tell me again: “Floss!”
I had gone to the dentist for an ordinary cleaning. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with healthy teeth – never had a cavity – which the dentist happily confirmed was still the case. This good news was followed, however, by the aforementioned lengthy and informative lecture on the value of flossing. Here’s the abridged version: When we brush our teeth, we’re really only cleaning the top and side surfaces. The space between the teeth and at the gumline remains filled with hungry bacteria, resulting in bad breath, gum disease, and eventually completely eroded gums. When you look at a dental x-ray, you see little triangles of space between the teeth. The only way to keep this space clean is to floss. But we don’t often realize that because we don’t see it: our teeth stick up from the jawbone like pillars supporting a dock. When the gums are healthy, it’s like the sea is at high tide, right up against the dock making the space below invisible. When the gums aren’t healthy, they recede and you wind up with painful visible roots and teeth sticking up like pylons. And as if the pain in the mouth isn’t threat enough, poor oral health has now been linked to heart disease.
So why do I care so much about flossing suddenly and why write about it today? Because it seems to me like such a great example of the power of small daily habits to transform a person’s life for good or for ill. All of us perform certain actions every day purely out of habit. Some are of little consequence, while others matter deeply (like flossing).
Today is Fat Tuesday, which means that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. At Upper Room’s Ash Wednesday Service, I get to give an introduction to Lenten disciplines. Most people are familiar with the idea of giving up something for Lent (i.e., chocolate, coffee, etc.). But rather than focusing on what to give up this Lent, I’m thinking about it more in terms of what to add. What if for Lent we all tried to adopt one small habit that would make a big difference in our lives (spiritually, emotionally, physically)? The practice of a small additional discipline for 40 days can leave quite an impression. For Christians, a daily discipline of reading scripture is analogous to flossing. It can take only a few minutes, but the cumulative effect really does show in one’s spiritual health. It cleans us up in the places that don’t normally show above the surface, and it prevents heart-disease, too – though of a different kind. (Yes, I know that was a cheesy comment, but I couldn’t resist.) Reading scripture regularly is just a small example, though. One could also adopt practices of gratitude, hospitality, stillness, or prayer. The Eastern Church often uses this prayer by St. Ephrem the Syrian during Lent:
O Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk, but give to me Thy servant a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love. O Lord and King, grand me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother: for blessed are Thou to the ages of ages. Amen. O God, clean me a sinner.
Perhaps praying this or another specific prayer each day would have a surprising effect. What other small but powerful daily habits could we adopt during this season?