I sometimes wonder what it must be like to live a life without the intervention of modern medicine. What must it be like when your teeth fit together just fine without braces, when you can see without corrective lenses, when you’ve required no surgery to remove oversized adenoids, tonsils, or appendices, when your robust joints have required no surgery, when your skin grows no cancers…

Now, to be clear, I haven’t experienced all the surgical procedures and interventions listed above… but enough of them to wonder what life would be like without them. This dream is partly why the story of Harrison Bergeron is so fascinating to me: a man who is simply profoundly smarter and stronger than any of his peers. In fact, I’ve a peer in my dental school class who is simply an extraordinarily gifted individual. Capable of mind-bendingly precise micro surgery and superhuman feats of long term memory—yet he achieves those tasks with no notable effort. He is, simply put, better than the rest. Does he needs glasses? I don’t know. But that brings us to an interesting point.

Tall poppy syndrome is used in parts of Europe to describe the injustices a truly gifted person suffers at the hands of their inferior peers. While I disagree with this idea being used in politics to shore up petulant complains of the wealthy regarding high taxes, I’ve seen tall poppy syndrome first hand in a small group. 100 people in our class, and there’s a solid contingent that simply hate this truly gifted classmate. I don’t understand this. I do, however, think there’s an underlying theme here: jealousy.

Smart people will go to great lengths and employ endless strings of clever ruses to hide their prejudices and knee-jerk reactions. No one wants to be seen as a bigot: smart people just have more cognitive overhead to work on hiding their tendencies. I think we’re seeing that in the interaction between my classmate the dental savant and his peers. Students will make up reasons to hide their jealousy, skim-coating their feelings with plausible critiques: “he’s not dedicated enough”, “he doesn’t take this seriously”… but what they feel is simply ugly jealousy.

In fact, I’ve seen the same thing with greed in my class. How many people said they were applying to dental school for the money? Nobody. So, everyone’s already had practice hiding their base desires. And so, the state of Minnesota is the first in the nation to introduce “Dental Therapists”—a person with qualifications between a dentist and a hygienist. There have been thousands of hours of a debate: will these Dental Therapists be restricted in where they can practice? What supervision will they be required to have? What procedures will they be allowed to do? Will this really achieve the stated goal: “solve the problem of poor people in remote areas who are unable to get to dental care regularly”?

Those questions are valid, because they are calling for a clarification of this Dental Therapist position. However, in asking these questions, most people are just hiding their greed. Some are genuinely engaged and interested. Most are worried that they’ll make less money in the future because of this position. Me? I just want to pay back my loans. After that, even if they come up with a vaccine to eliminate dental decay and thus dentists as we know it forever, I’ll be fine, thanks. In the meantime, it’s hard to watch everyone lie to themselves and others.

2 comments left



I like this post, and I like the connection you made between these two situations— because they are certainly very much alike. From our conversations, it would seem that you did not always see these things in this way, though, and I wonder what made you change your perspective?

What I mean is: if your knee-jerk reaction was the same as everybody’s (and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think it was), how or why did your thinking shift?

It’s easy to move into a more refined/enlightened/selfless/whatever way of thinking and feel indignant or self-righteous when we look at others who have not yet reached the same conclusions. And then we just further the cycle of misunderstanding, of “us” v. “them”. I bring this up only because I feel this happening continually in my own life, and sometimes I have to stop for a minute and remind myself that I used to act or think in exactly the same ways that now make me crazy— and perhaps this is PRECISELY why these things make me want to stab my eyes out. Just because we now see the light doesn’t take away the fact that we too were blindfolded not that long ago.

Am I making any sense at all? Sorry for the rambling and ranting… this apparently struck a nerve with me this morning! Not so much you vis a vis your dental schoolmates, but my own tendency to get up on my high horse any chance I get. (See above.)

Anyway, it’s good stuff.

Alexander Micek

I did indeed changes my perspective, and I appreciate you calling me out on it. The thought of bringing up my shift in thoughts came to mind as I was writing this, but I thought it distracted too much from the main idea. I don’t rightly know what made me change my mind—maybe seeing my own jealousy hurt me?

I have also been tending a pet theory of mine for a while: people, even very educated people combing the primary literature, will first make a conclusion, and then back it up with data, failing to seek out data rejecting their conclusion.

I see what you’re asking: how does someone sincerely working on bettering themselves avoid elitism? I’m attracted to the Buddhist (I think) maxim of “minimizing suffering”. This may be a one-dimensional view of that religion, but I think it says that we are all bound together by suffering. So, avoiding it for oneself invariably makes a person seek to help others avoid it, too.

But, yeah. That philosophical elitism, that “I have some answers about the right way to live, and you don’t” can be tough to shake.

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