Aug. 1, 2006
The last time I was in Italy, I had a pair of shoes handcrafted in a little shop in Possitano, the beach town along the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast.

The last time I was in Italy, I had a pair of shoes handcrafted in a little shop in Possitano, the beach town along the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. The Italians are famous for their handcrafted leather goods. On this trip, I actually chose the leather and was fitted right on the premises. It was a nostalgic experience. While waiting for the shoes, my mind was transported back to a time when I stood outside a shoe repair shop with the big “cat’s paw” sign on the window, watching the shoemaker steadily work at his trade. Whatever happened to those days?

I recently saw a movie called Kinky Boots that told the story of the demise of the shoemaker in Great Britain. Modern times demand mass production, and although the products aren’t as durable, the cost of manufacturing is so low that the consumer could throw away the shoes and buy a new pair when they wear out because they are so cheap. I’m not just waxing nostalgic. I certainly understand the benefits of technology and progress. We live in a whole new world of abundance where things are very accessible and affordable for most people. But don’t think we haven’t paid a price for that.

Finding good craftsmen these days is becoming more and more difficult as most industries are on the road to commodification. Go ahead - take any industry. One of the better examples is farming. Just look at the commodification of corn. Corn is so easy to grow these days that the price has gone out of control ... downward. Corn is everywhere. It’s in just about everything we eat and, well, it’s becoming so ubiquitous that author Michael Pollan has referred to Americans as “corn people.” Farming is a dead industry these days. We now have agribusiness, and the biggest effect of this has been the demise of the American farmer.

The American farmer has replaced the dentist in the mythical question, “Who has the highest suicide rate?” I’m all for abundance and low prices, but somehow I see this very thing happening in many industries. Man is becoming alienated from his work. The invention of commodity corn has severed any link between the producer of the corn and its ultimate market. Just like the shoe industry ... and just like dentistry.

We all can appreciate the downside of mass production and the loss of quality, but Mother Nature is very unforgiving and the tendency to commodify our profession will hurt not only the producer/dentist but the consumer/patient as well. Years ago, I tried to convince patients to accept better dentistry by drawing a comparison between getting a hook as a prosthetic replacement or a real working cosmetic replacement. The hook was my way of describing the commodity. Today’s technology is amazing. We can provide the very finest dentistry only if we stay away from commodification.

I read about an ocularist in the San Francisco area who is a master at reproducing prosthetic eyeballs. People come from all over the world to see this craftsman. He loves his work because he gets to meet his patients; he’s totally connected to the outcome. His work is his art, and he certainly doesn’t believe in taking eyeballs out of a drawer and sticking them into empty sockets.

I talked with a master ceramist from Switzerland who described European dentistry very much like the ocularist described his work. The ceramist told me he gets his greatest pleasure out of working with the patient and the outcome the patient receives. In Europe, the ceramist is linked much more closely to the patient than we are here in the United States. Unlike the farmer who doesn’t know where his corn goes, the European ceramist knows who owns every one of his crowns and veneers. This is where the craftsman receives his happiness. Freud told us that man gets his happiness in life through lieben und artiten, his relationships and his work. It seems to me that the highest cost of commodification is to put work and relationships in jeopardy.

We have had a paradigm shift over the last 50 years. Although we seem to have more material goods and live much better, study after study shows that our level of happiness has decreased. True contentment in life comes from getting intimate with our work, like the shoemaker, the farmer, and the ocularist. This idea connects human beings to the infinite and, therefore, their ultimate purpose in life. Corporate America is mostly concerned with the bottom line - jobs are being outsourced to meet a demand for lower cost at the expense of the vanishing American craftsman.

Dr. Barry F. Polansky practices in Cherry Hill, N.J., and is the author of the book, The Art of the Examination, and publisher of Dental Life, a newsletter dedicated to finding balance and happiness in private dental practice. He is the founder of the Academy of Dental Leadership, www.AcademyofDentalLeadership.com, which offers small group and individual practice coaching. Dr. Polansky is on the visiting faculty of The Pankey Institute and may be e-mailed at [email protected].

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