Here’s a hot take: maybe death is like a tooth extraction.
Okay, maybe not that hot. C.S. Lewis pioneered this analogy in The Screwtape Letters. But it’s a statement I’ve been meditating on recently because last week I underwent a wisdom tooth extraction at the dentist’s office.
Since getting your wisdom teeth removed is one of the rites of passage to adulthood, most friends and coworkers recalled their own experiences to me during the days leading up to my extraction. The day of the operation, my head was filled with people’s success stories, cautionary tales, do’s, and don’ts. I had heard everything from “expect to be blindfolded while he pulls your tooth” to “you’ll regret choosing local over general anesthesia.”
This advice, though well-intentioned, contributed to my nervousness on the day of the operation. I was anxious when I arrived at the dentist’s. The table of sharp instruments that I glimpsed beside my chair only added to the mood. The dentist gave me a shot of anesthesia and narrated the recovery process to me while we waited for the numbness to take hold. As you might imagine, his warnings about pain management, accidentally inhaling the pulled tooth, and the potential for a long-range infection did little to alleviate my nerves.
Finally, the time came. As the dentist laid me back in the chair, the song “Thriller” came on in the background. “Can you guess that I didn’t pick the music today?” he said. Then, only moments later, “there it is.” He popped the tooth out. I hadn’t felt anything. “Take a look,” the dentist said as he showed me my tooth. “It’s tiny. Want to keep it?” Tiny for a wisdom tooth, but compared to the baby teeth I remembered losing, it looked huge. “Absolutely not,” I said. “That thing has caused me enough heartache already.”
And so I walked out of the office, laughing and lighter than I had felt in days because it was over and had been so easy.
Looking back at the experience, the only painful part of the tooth extraction was my anticipation and dread.
Why had I feared it so much? It was painless, over in the blink of an eye. A relative lifetime of worry and doubt, followed by a mere moment of pain, and an aftermath of immense relief.
This pattern of anticipation far worse than the reality suggests a perspective on death. We imagine death as awful, gloomy and impossibly painful, because we don’t understand what it is. Nobody comes back from the grave to describe their soul’s passage to us. But really, we have no idea how to describe it. Maybe our pain in death is closer to that of a tooth removal: far smaller than we expected. Maybe death will be the greatest relief of our lives. “What was I so afraid of?”
C.S. Lewis confirms this view in The Screwtape Letters when he imagines a man’s death as the realization that God and his angels are the friends he has known his whole life. He writes, “The gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. [The man] had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realized what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So it was you all the time.’”
So many of our experiences in life that involve a plunge into the unknown—jumping off a high dive, speaking in front of a large group, undergoing a tooth extraction, for example—turn out to be simpler than we ever expected. I must imagine that death is the same way.
And I pray that, after I die, I can look back on my life with the same levity that I now do on my wisdom tooth extraction.
Source: C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. New York: HarperCollins, 1942. 173-174.