The boxer, the dentist, and the fly fisherman

May 1, 1997
It`s not very often that we get answers to those "great mysteries of life." We ponder upon the questions, but they always seem to stay unanswered.

Barry Polansky, DMD

It`s not very often that we get answers to those "great mysteries of life." We ponder upon the questions, but they always seem to stay unanswered.

When a revelation comes, it is an epiphany. Eureka! Ding! Finally, we get it.

I am here to report that I just received such an awakening from none other than the recently crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Evander Holyfield. The champ finally explained a concept in a way that even I - a relatively nonreligious person - could understand. The champ explained how God could be in both corners of the same fight and only one of the opponents could be victorious.

I had always wondered how Randall Cunningham, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, claimed that God was on his side after a completed pass. It baffled me that God would abandon the pass defender. Or when Pat Day, the jockey, won the Kentucky Derby, his first words were "praise the Lord." What happened to the other 12 horses? Did God forget about them? Well, it seems that Oprah Winfrey had the same problem.

The champ was on Oprah`s show recently, and she asked him that question. Holyfield answered her succinctly in the terms of his religion. He obviously is a deeply religious man. But it seemed that Oprah did not get it. She sat in open-mouth awe and did not seem to grasp the idea that God would abandon anyone. Well, that is not what the champ was suggesting.

Evander Holyfield explained by saying that God had given him the ability and the tools to be the best he could be. He was endowed with the strength and power to become the champion of the world. If he did all that it took in terms of preparation, then when the moment of truth came, he would be ready. He would have nothing to fear, not even Mike Tyson. There was no way Evander Holyfield could ever lose, even if he didn`t get to wear the belt.

Evander Holyfield lives life to its fullest potential and, with the help of God, has used all his ability and cast out all fear and self-doubt. Because of that, he wears the crown. But somehow I feel that his greatest reward was spiritual: being the best.

Readers who are familiar with L.D. Pankey know that professional excellence was one of his highest values. Dr. Pankey created his Cross of Dentistry - at the center of which is the reward we receive for providing excellent dentistry. He divided the reward into the material and the spiritual. The material rewards of dentistry are numerous: the Porsche, the Rolex or your trip to Hawaii.

It`s the spiritual reward that I feel many of us have a hard time realizing. It`s a shame because, if more of us realized the spiritual reward, there would be less burnout and more happiness in dentistry. Let me quote Dr. Pankey from A Philosophy of the Practice of Dentistry:

"At first, our notion of happiness may be to make money, pay debts, start on the road to financial security, secure the so-called comforts of our social environment. Our final supreme objective, however, is happiness. Our differences in behavior are due to our different notions of what happiness is at the time."

Dr. Pankey`s philosophy is one of dentistry`s finest treasures. He was the thinking man`s dentist, a sage. Much of his philosophy is derived from the classic texts, assimilated with modern success literature and then distilled for practical usage for dentists. He is a legacy, and his philosophy continues to help dentists practice at the highest level of excellence, enabling them to live balanced and fulfilled lives. The preceding passage was derived from Aristotle`s Organon: "For man, a reasoning, purposeful creature with a final endeavor in life, the supreme final end for the sake of which everything exists, is Happiness."

I`ve often heard it said that dentistry is a thankless profession. If a dentist is waiting to be thanked for his work in order to be happy about what he`s doing, then happiness will elude him.

True happiness - and extending that thought to true success - comes when we understand how valuable we are to the people we serve, and always strive to improve that service to the best of our ability. It is only when we learn to appreciate the intangible rewards that are at the center of the Cross of Dentistry that we will attain fulfillment. The tangible or material rewards are short-term and only superficially satisfying. So, what are these intangible rewards? For Holyfield, it was being "the best." I`m sure if you thought about it, you could create your own list. Here is a small sampling of some intangible rewards that some might consider spiritual:

- Responsibility - Taking control of everything in your life.

- Integrity - Taking the time to discern what is right and wrong.

- Excellence - Becoming the best at what you do.

- Creativity - Bringing into existence a new world that had not existed before.

Get the idea? The list can include anything that is considered important to you. When you have values like these that become the guiding principles in life, then it is not hard to live a happy and fulfilled life. Holyfield knows that this is not an easy task and that is why he is filled with so much gratitude for his achievement.

In Norman Maclean`s wonderful novella about fly fishing, A River Runs Through It, the author writes, "My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout, as well as eternal salvation - come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy."

Dr. Pankey, Evander Holyfield and Norman Maclean understood the relationship between what they did professionally and fulfillment. They knew how much work was necessary to reach levels of excellence. They knew where the treasure was buried.

The quality of our lives lies well below the surface. It`s been said that "opportunity is dressed in the clothes of hard work." I believe that to be true. The reward for being the best at what you do is intangible, and "the best" know that. They are driven by the process of being the best.

This is known as autotelism, or doing for the sake of doing. They enjoy the journey more than the destination. Or, as Cervantes said, "The road is better than the inn."

In the current bestseller, The Millionaire Next Door, authors Thomas Stanley and William Danko list the "Top Ten Most Profitable Sole-Proprietorship Businesses in the United States." Dental offices were rated fourth behind osteopathic physicians, physicians, and coal miners. They claim that 95 percent of dentists make a net income. This surprised me.

Only 87 percent of lawyers in private practice make a net income. Imagine trying to open up a men`s store or a restaurant!

The statistics only confirm what a great profession dentistry really is, and that the grass is not greener on the other side. Yet, so many dentists complain that they would rather be doing something else. Why is that?

The same book tells a story about boxing promoter Don King, who spent two hours shopping for shoes in Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Mr. King had spent $64,100 on 110 pairs of shoes. This broke Magic Johnson`s single store record of $35,000. Mr. King`s most expensive purchase was a pair of alligator loafers that cost $850. I don`t know about you, but the last time I looked down, I still only counted two feet. Somehow, I believe that Don King is "looking for love in all the wrong places."

So many of us look for our rewards in the wrong places. The happiest dentists that I know live simple lives, uncomplicated by chasing material objects of questionable value. Evander Holyfield`s fulfillment doesn`t come from holding the belt. Rather, it comes from knowing that, at one moment, he was the best. But he won`t sleep on that, because he understands his big purpose in life.

The author practices in Cherry Hill, N.J.

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