It isn’t difficult to believe that most dentists live within the top 5% of incomes in the United States, considering their median income of nearly $160,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worldwide, that same compensation lies in the top 0.2% of income generated.
So it isn’t a surprise that as dentists, we are likely at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We do not long for food or shelter. We likely feel safe. Many of us have rewarding and intimate relationships with our spouses and friends.
And maybe not all the time, but certainly enough, we find ourselves in awe of our accomplishments, even if it is to say that we have gotten through the trenches of dental school.
We have the resources we need to survive and, dare I say, thrive. More often than not, considering our basic needs, we are comfortable. More often than not, materialistically speaking, we are comfortable.
At the top of the hierarchy, we find self-actualization, which is one of my favorite terms. True self-actualization means a life with purpose, the ability and drive to live out that purpose, and the responsibility to allow those around us to live out theirs also.
To me, self-actualization means living up to my full potential, or at least attempting to do so, day in and day out. In fulfilling that full potential, we hold a responsibility and the capacity to give back.
As we come from a place of privilege, there may be times that we descend to a place of guilt—a sort of misguided feeling of penance. The good news I am here to deliver is that we can get rid of that guilt very simply, just by giving back.
Let’s Be Honest
There is a selfish component to giving back. It makes us feel better, whole, significant, and relevant. Most importantly, it makes us feel needed. The idea of giving may be instrumental in living out our purpose. It may be the payment we feel is due for living in a place of a sort of financial freedom.
Giving back is an emotional down payment given in the hope of becoming emotionally independent. When we give, however hard it is to admit, we hope, even if for a split second, that our karmic debt is somehow reduced. We hope that down the line, life will be more forgiving. We hope that we earn a sort of credit toward goodwill.
I believe that many of us would be unwilling to admit these hopes, yet I still hold it to be true, however unrealized. You must be willing to be vulnerable and brave to come to that realization. Furthermore, it’s in our human nature to always expect something in return.
My Own Expression of Guilt: Can You Relate?
Recently, my family has begun taking Sunday mornings to pack sandwiches for the homeless. While doing so, I inadvertently found myself weeping. Out of nowhere, tears began streaming down my face in a way I could not hide. That moment awoke feelings of guilt for all that I have amassed.
In my mind, I suddenly was overwhelmed by the image of a woman my age, sleeping on a cold bench outside near a fire to keep warm. Hard work aside, I wondered what has made me so special. Why am I lucky enough to have been born into this life? Why am I lucky enough to live in this country, to be healthy and strong, and to have come this far? Have I won the lottery?
My daughter was confused by my uncontrollable crying, and she hugged me. As I explained to her why I felt sad, I must have scared her a little. She had no concept of what I was talking about. I sincerely hoped that as my daughter and I pack sandwiches each week, we are continually and without effort reminded of what other people don’t have and what we may be taking for granted.
We have a home, maybe not as big as other houses, but a home, nonetheless. We have things, maybe not as expensive as things owned by other people, but things, nonetheless. And the list goes on.
In the light of imagining my counterpart on a winter evening in windy Chicago, what I don’t have no longer matters to me. All of a sudden, what I do have is all that matters, and the most important thing that we have is one another.
Capacity to Give
Yes, we have gotten where we are through self-direction and self-motivation. In the spirit of the holidays, and considering that all of our basic needs are met, it may be time to consider giving back.
The list of what we can give back at first glance is pretty simple. We can donate money or things. But perhaps what ought to lie in the center of our capacity to give, based on our own abilities, strengths, and experience, is support and encouragement for the people in our charge.
And what better way is there to give than to express genuine interest in the people around us, including our family, our team, and our patients? Generously listening to the people with whom we spend the most time will make them feel needed, wanted, and heard. It will make them feel like they matter and that they are important, just like the times when you feel relevant yourself.
My friend, Paul Goodman, a kindness ambassador and a sort of peacekeeping chaperone in Nachoverse (a Dental Nachos Facebook group), is one man whose charge can be followed. Paul invariably believes, as do many of us, that kindness ripples across the world. An act of decency, graciousness, and unselfishness can very often, even when uncompelled, be paid forward. And when those small acts are multiplied by the millions every day, they can change the world.
Our capacity to give is what we need the most ourselves. Perhaps along the way, we will get something back too.
Dr. Augustyn is a practicing general dentist. She earned a DDS from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004. She has completed the course sequence with the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. She also participates in at least 50 hours of continuing education each year. Additionally, she is a moderator of Dental Nachos, a Facebook group. She is an avid writer and enjoys listening to nonfiction books, vacations by the water, and spending time in nature. She lives with her husband of 18 years and daughter in a Chicago suburb. She can be reached at email@example.com.