The Once and Future Me

The receptionist gave my fiancé a funny look. “Are you sure she took the pills?” Apparently, most sedated patients don’t jump up and dance when Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” comes on the office radio.

My fiancé assured her that, yes, I had taken the sedative my dentist had promised would help me ignore, perhaps even sleep through, the violent separation of my wisdom teeth from my body. In truth, I had taken only half of one pill—just enough to release my inner Shakira, but not enough to render me unconscious. I had been waiting a long time to have this done, and I wanted to be awake for it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no masochist, and I’m definitely not fearless. Why do you think those wisdom teeth were still in my jaw fourteen years after dentists started telling me they should come out? “The longer you wait,” they all said, “the worse it will be.” This was a bargain I was willing to strike. The teeth could come out one day, in the future, when future-me would be the one going through it. Future-me would be better equipped to handle the anxiety, pain, and swelling. Future-me could face the possibility of infections, permanent nerve damage, and phantom wisdom tooth syndrome. (Here’s some hard-earned wisdom for you: do not under any circumstance Google “wisdom tooth horror stories” the night before the procedure.)

Yes, future-me was definitely the right person to have the surgery. As I’ve always told myself, future-me is so much more courageous than plain old me. And also taller and better organized. This is why future-me gets a lot of assignments: the taxes, the diet, the laundry. Future-me is a very busy person, and it’s tough to fit it all in her schedule. But she’s so much more prepared for the challenges of life.

Or so I thought—until I got introduced to an even better version of myself. You can call her present-me. I met present-me in the basement of a hospital during the first class of an eight-week course in mindfulness. The teacher sat us in a circle and told us to close our eyes. He told us to feel the body, watch the breath. When our minds wandered, he taught us how to bring our attention back, again and again, to the present moment. Hello, present-me. How are you doing?

The more I sat with present-me, the more I started to question the part of me that kept putting things off. “Don’t do it now,” the voice would say. “You’ll be so much stronger, so much smarter, and have so much more energy later.” But this voice, who spoke so highly of future-me, had remarkably little faith in present-me. And she didn’t seem to have a whole lot of enthusiasm for anything other than shopping, sleeping, and making lists of things that future-me should do.

I started to see this voice for the scared trickster she was. The magic time known as not-now was never going to arrive—and neither was future-me.

That realization is how I eventually landed in the dentist’s chair, telling myself, “You can do this. This is just like sitting meditation.” Present-me coached my mind through the whole surgery. Feel the long needle slide into the gum behind your last molar. Follow the burning sensation of lidocaine as it spreads through your jaw. Stay present with the discomfort as it turns into numbness. Now feel your breath.

“You won’t feel pain exactly, just a lot of pressure,” the dentist told me as the pulling began. So I watched the sensations: This is what pressure feels like. This is what a lot of pressure feels like. This is what an insane amount of pressure feels like.

I even listened to the sound of bone cracking as he broke the most stubborn tooth into pieces. Feel your reath. Feel your feet. Feel your hands. Feel your face. Oh, right, you can’t feel your face. Feel your breath. The whole experience was an exercise in not freaking out—one that mindfulness practice had prepared me well for. I have since had many other opportunities to practice staying present when my mind would rather freak out. To my delight, present-me has been up to the challenge, even without the assistance of 0.125 mg of triazolam.

Present-me has been a good friend on turbulent flights, when my imagination threatens me with visions of the plane falling out of the sky. Present-me has been a voice of reason at going-out-of-business sales, when my primitive brain tries to convince me that hoarding discounted merchandise will give me some kind of survival advantage. Even in some bona fide emergencies, present-me has remembered to stay present. It turns out she’s a lot better under pressure than that voice in my head would have predicted.

As for future-me, we still haven’t met. I hear she’s a heck of a gal, but it’s OK if she never arrives. I’ve discovered that present-me, when I trust her, is exactly the right person for now.