Practices of Gratitude – The Big Yellow Taxi Method

What’s not to love about a dentist’s waiting room?

Is it the bad chairs placed too close together that remind me of the kind of personal space violations I miss so dearly from my days of riding the subway?

Is it the fluorescent lighting? How about the issues of Oprah magazine from 1998? Or maybe even that difficult to label but oh so uniquely familiar smell of dentistry – one which I imagine is constituted by accumulations of airborne plaque, sterilizing fluid, and foot odour from the other patrons who have respectfully removed their footwear?

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Is it the sheer anticipation of discomfort? Or maybe even the wondering: what new perilous and expensive condition which previously went undetected but now needs urgent intervention will be discovered on today’s visit? Or in my case, the persistent if somewhat adolescent hope that I will be affirmed by my dentist for being a good brusher.

But – at the risk of sounding like an old crank – on my most recent visit I was actually more annoyed by the music and sounds. The faint drilling, the screams (what, doesn’t everybody’s dentist office have this?), and the oddly frequent presence of Justin Bieber on the radio. (I think it’s ridiculous that my spell checker knows how to correct my spelling mistake of his last name).

Not so long ago, I was sitting in the waiting room listening to Justin belt out another of his vintage finest (just how many of his songs have the word “baby” in them?) and finding myself fairly agitated about the whole situation.  Somehow my attention returned to this gratitude project I’ve now publicly outed myself about. The accountability of writing personal things in a public venue is fierce, but you generous readers have brought up some very good questions about gratitude. Although you all seem quite shy, which I suppose is natural with all of us being a little new here. Please do feel free to post public comments and questions as well.

But as I’m sitting waiting for my turn to be tortured by the dentist – sorry, I mean “examined” by the dentist – I’m led to reflect on this:

It’s easy to talk about practicing gratitude, but what does that actually look like?

What are the practical, nitty-gritty workings of integrating thankfulness into our lives?

Who do you think you are David, telling people how to practice gratitude?

Well, let me start with this one way of practicing gratitude, inspired by the waiting room of a dentist’s office.

It was Joni Mitchell who wrote and sang in the song Big Yellow Taxi: “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?” But what if we tried to imagine what things would be like if they were gone as a way of helping us to recognize them as gifts rather than just seeing them as annoyances or something to be escaped? Especially when we’re in a bad mood and don’t really feel the thankfulness, imagining the disappearance of whatever we’re surrounded by presently can invite us into heartfelt gratefulness. So in spite of all my complaining I have to consider: what would it be like if the dentist’s office didn’t exist?

I may not like her drill or her mildly passive aggressive questions about my flossing habits (I think you actually can guess how often I floss, let’s not play games here). What would life be like if there were no access to dental care? What would life with chronically painful teeth, or worse, no teeth be like? Doesn’t this professional whom I avoid like a rabid skunk actually play a major role in my ongoing future ability to eat steak? This opens up a whole bunch of things to be thankful for in my view: the dentist herself; the training and experience she has; her kind way of treating delinquent and sarcastic patients like me; the resources I have available to pay for her services; anesthesia; sterilization; privacy legislation; electronic payment machines; and of course beautiful juicy sirloin itself.

So I sat with all of that for a few minutes.  The dentist was running behind, which meant many minutes to sit with this reflection of how things which annoyed me could suddenly be seen as gifts. The waiting, which ordinarily would have made me grouchy became a point of thanksgiving because now I had extra time to think about gratitude! I was struck by the experience of feeling genuinely appreciative of these things, perhaps for the first time in my life. In taking them for granted I failed to notice their value, their conveniences, and even the way they are a vast improvement over the alternatives. If you think I’m being ridiculous, go google “ancient dental tools” and you’ll understand that we are lucky patients indeed. Even the coldest anti-dentite heart like mine can develop an appreciation for what is good in a situation like this that initially seems unwelcome and unpleasant.

These kinds of “thought experiments” as therapists sometimes call them, are really helpful in bringing back our attention to parts of life we so easily ignore while on autopilot. Asking myself what it would be like if the dentist and her waiting room didn’t exist shifts my attention and perspective to appreciating things in the here and now of my life. It’s not just the dentist’s office of course; we are free to imagine the loss of anything in order to develop a new appreciation for the blessings that surround us.

So, as part of a daily practice of gratitude we can use our seemingly aversive experiences to reorient our attention to things that are gifts in our life. The terrible music will go away eventually; perhaps to be replaced by the far worse sound of drilling teeth. But even having my own teeth drilled can be experienced as an unexpected gift when I stop trying to avoid discomfort and recognize the goodness of being helped in this way.

For simple reference, let’s call it the “Big Yellow Taxi Method of Moving Towards Gratitude”, or BYTMMTG as some might prefer. Put simply – imagine things gone. Imagine as Joni Mitchell’s song suggests – paradise paved over and replaced with a parking lot – and see if your heart doesn’t move in the direction of thankfulness for something.


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