Stories versus stereotypes

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I sat nervously in the dentist’s office as he explained the procedure to me.

“It’s simple,” he said. “I’m going to slice open your gums, cut your four wisdom teeth in half and then pull them out in pieces. Nice and easy.”

Nice? EASY? How DARE he use that nonchalant tone with me! I thought. Didn’t he care that the anaesthetic might fail? He was totally unphased. I was totally not.

He scribbled some illegible words and ticked a few boxes on my patient forms. Tracing his pen down the page, he stopped and smiled. “Oh! You’re a writer?” he remarked, eyes suddenly wide and excited.

“Yeah I, uh—I am . . . ?” I replied unconfidently, totally sidelined by his sudden enthusiasm. I never know what to write when medical forms ask you for your occupation. Writer? Journalist? Artist? Professional email-er? “But my job is pretty varied most days . . .” I added, trying to hide a bad case of imposter syndrome.

The dentist spun around in his chair and rummaged through his filing cabinet. “Have you published any books?” he asked excitedly, looking over his shoulder.

“No, no books yet,” I laughed. “But I’ve published a lot of articles on faith, and I write a lot of news stories.”

“Oh that’s fantastic!” he said. “I wish I’d been your age when I was first published. But I’ve written a few books now, as you can see!”

Thud. A pile of books landed on the desk in front of me. One looked like an encyclopedia, the other four like novels. I was surprised.

“Have a look! Flip through!” he encouraged me. In the space of 30 seconds, my nonchalant dentist had become a little boy in a candy store.

“Oh, thanks!” I said, looking through the big one first—a light blue hard-cover with hundreds of pages, filled top to bottom with diagrams of what looked like war medals. My mouth hung agape, a side-effect of a reaction somewhere between fascination and shock.

“You WROTE this?” I marvelled. “It’s amazing!” As he thanked me, my mind was desperately troubleshooting, trying to figure out how to categorise this new acquaintance. He must be the analytical type, I reasoned. An over-achiever. Probably a first-born.

Just when I thought I had my dentist totally figured out—a 40-something year-old, successful, left-brain dominant Middle Eastern male—I flipped through the other books: a fantasy novel, a satire, a collection of short stories and a book about Australian slang. [pullquote]

Drat! Back to square one. Who was this man?

“I’m very impressed!” I said, trying to find words to mask my confusion. I wasn’t lying. I added a congratulations and thanked him for the consultation and allowing me to see his books.

“You’re welcome, all the best with your writing!” he said. “I’ll see you next Thursday at the hospital. It will be an honour to pull out your teeth, fellow writer.”

Oh yeah, the teeth thing! I thought. Despite being surrounded by fake-teeth figurines, I’d forgotten all about it. And while I still had no mental category for this new friend, I trusted him. I was a lot less scared.

Sharing our stories is powerful. I’m ashamed to say it, but if my dentist hadn’t noticed our similar interests and broken the ice that day, I would have walked out of his office with an incredibly shallow understanding of who he is, and reinforced false stereotypes.

In honour of my dentist-appointment-turned-life-lesson, this issue of Adventist Record features articles that I hope will demonstrate the incredible power of humble stories to break down the barriers that we, as Adventists, often construct: between generations, denominations and social groups.

In my interview with Pastor Kevin Wilson, he sums it up perfectly: “[People] are not a sum of body parts or a social media post. They’re real stories with real pasts and people need to be reminded of that.”

In our interactions with people, may the labels we use to categorise each other—dentist, writer, Adventist, Atheist, Australian, Middle Eastern, male, female, old, young—never get in the way of our ultimate destiny and shared identity as sons and daughters
of God. May our stories remain ever-sacred.

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