From the author: Dr. Maggie Augustyn considers herself part of a paradigm shift that dentistry, as well as many other industries, is experiencing—the shift of finally being brave and vulnerable enough to talk about what it is that makes us human. Here, Dr. Augustyn presents an interpretation of combative behavior among people we may have previously considered our tribe. If we can become aware of it and understand it, we’re going to be able to find compassion and empathy toward one another.
Each generation thinks they face a unique set of circumstances. And they do, because the circumstances are different for each generation; what isn’t unique, however, is that we, as each micro-human epoch, do or will have to face them.
Parents through the ages shake their proverbial fists at “what the kids are doing.” Boomers were asked to turn down their rock and roll music by the Greatest Generation, music that’s now regarded as some of the best ever played, still topping playlists inspiring younger age groups. Gen-Xers established their willingness to be self-sufficient and introduced the world to the internet, to technology; are they to blame for putting our lives on fast forward? Millennials have been labeled as being self-involved and wasting their life glued to a blue screen; yet that’s how they’ve become tech-savvy and open-minded. Gen-Zs, though incapable of writing in cursive, are having us rethink diversity and mental well-being as core values. The list of challenges and advancements that every one of those generations has brought is unending.
But I am ready to argue that all these generations are facing a new, complex dynamic; a unique and alarming circumstance of an “us versus them” mentality. Quite seriously, it could be the force that will bring failure in globalism.
The examples of that are endless; in our microcosms of dentistry, we have dentists versus hygienists, general practitioners versus specialists, private practice versus DSOs. All of those affect us as a country, as a culture, as humans, personally and professionally. There doesn’t appear to be any hiding from it. The media, globalization of ideas, and participation in those same ideas on such a large scale have allowed us to find groups where we find some sort of belonging. There are groups where kinships and friendships can ignite and flourish rapidly. Yet, as we jump into these romanticized relationships we have missed since middle school, there is a caveat to consider: just as inclusive as they feel, they may be equally exclusive. Finding a delicate balance in being able to celebrate that tribe, without offending or rejecting, becomes tremendously challenging. How do we marry group-based identity and the richness of diversity?
Are we connecting ... or are we offending?
When I write or speak about my own personal challenges as a mother, female dentist, and practice owner, I know it lands strongly within the hearts and minds of those who are like me. It makes the women who are or have faced similar difficulties feel connected to me and to one another, and more importantly, makes everyone going through it feel less alone.
At the same time, writing about my own perspective might feel equally exclusive to male dentists, or to people who don’t own practices or have children, or to those who aren’t dental professionals. The sharing of my experience is never intended to take away from someone else’s, but I battle the idea not knowing how to work around it. I want to play my part in not furthering the “us versus them” mentality. I often wonder if I should water down my message, yet if I do that, I could also water the connection my readers are looking for.
We have to be very careful going forward because whether we’re looking through a wide lens or a micro one, our community is becoming more fractured, more ignited to fight. People feel so connected to one side that they consider the other an enemy. Even in dentistry, even among intelligent respectful experts, members of professional Facebook groups are brave from behind the keyboard, exhibiting unusually distasteful bullying behavior. “Everyone who isn’t like me is my enemy” sometimes appears to be the new normal.
Cohesion versus conflict
What I am referring to here seems different from the competition deeply rooted within our genetic programming. It isn’t a Darwinian characteristic; it could be related to our evolutionary need for acceptance, attachment, or for herding together, and studies have shown that groups thrive when they share a common enemy. Yet, it seems we aren’t entirely nourished by belonging because we find fuel in its opposite.
We have every right to our first amendment right for free speech and we are, in fact, free to quarrel. But what we have been doing is escalating arguments and passing short-tempered reprehensible comments directed toward questions of professionals’ search for growth or solutions to complicated questions—young dentists, hygienists, and support teams searching for a way to lead a lighter and more joyful life. Sure, we live our lives colored by our past, by our stories, by our experiences. But taking away from someone else’s suffering doesn’t make mine, nor does it make me, any bigger or more important. It makes me the person who creates the difficulty and the suffering we all want to escape.
Blur the lines
So, how do we combat it? The answer is simple, though acting it out may not be. We must balance conflict and cohesion. We are all alike, whether we’d like to admit it or not. Whether we believe in climate change or think that it’s some great hoax, we all, as humans, want to lead lives free of suffering. That is our connection. That is what connects those who are vehemently against using plastic straws to those who drive large vehicles that need a lot of gas. We have a desire to hurt less and to be loved more. We want to be seen; we want to feel like we matter. We may not agree on how to get there, but we all must respect our individual journeys to try.
Are we willing to do what it takes to come together? Just as with everything else, driving lasting change is a great challenge. Fair or unfair, a challenge is nothing other than an opportunity to grow. Are we at a point where we are uncomfortable enough to want to change and to make a difference? This has to come from understanding the discomfort, from empathy toward those who are “not us.” And if you aren’t overly preoccupied with sticking it to the other side, know that if we connect and come together, we will find and manage a way to respect one another.
There is a great value in that for everyone. So, let’s blur the lines a little. Let’s choose empathy and compassion ahead of being right and feeding our ego, if only for one moment. That will give us a fighting chance to wake up tomorrow a better person than the one we lived as today.