‘You know, denial can save your life, but it can also kill you,” said my friend, a psychoanalyst.
She was speaking from experience, having contracted polio during her early twenties and going on nevertheless to accomplish a great deal both personally and professionally.
She is emphatic that it was a basic denial of her physical condition (“I just didn’t think about it”) that enabled her to push ahead and accomplish the many things she wanted to do with her life – including making aliya to Israel in her eighties.
“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” she commented, playfully. More seriously, she explained that denial runs a gamut; and at the lower end, so to speak, it enables us to get on with our lives.
It seems pretty clear that if we sat down and contemplated the difficulties and possible dangers of every single thing we wanted or needed to do – for example, driving along the highway or even crossing a busy road – many of us might never leave our homes or attempt a challenging task. A measure of denial can therefore give us the courage to function.
A SEMINAR I took some years ago dealt with the topic of risk. What I took away from it was that denial can act as a protective device, helping us cope with anxiety. For it’s true that we never know, from moment to moment, what is going to happen, and many people find that quite scary.
After asking participants what kind of eventualities they feared and collecting an impressive range of calamities, the instructor drew a horizontal line, labeling one end “100% Risk,” and the other “0 Risk.”
Both these extremes are irrational, he pointed out.
Life is never totally risky; but nor is it totally risk-free.
Marking an X somewhere mid-line, he pointed out that this was where reality lay. In other words: Some risk, with possible bad outcome, is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be exaggerated.
“When you start thinking about all the things that could happen when you step outside your front door – or venture outside your comfort zone – picture this continuum with the ‘risk meter’ hovering in the middle, and get on with the business of living,” he advised.
Where the denial factor comes in is our going ahead in the belief that we will be OK, while not knowing what lies in the future.
IT OCCURRED to me that many immigrants to Israel, notably those coming from the West, must have exercised some form of denial to have left the comfort and relative security of their lives in their former countries to relocate to a country and region of the world that is hot in more senses than one – and getting hotter all the time.
I still remember the incredulity of some work colleagues in London back in the 1970s when I told them I was moving to Israel. They thought I was out of my mind. But after more than 40 years of living in this country, most of them in Jerusalem, there is no doubt in my mind that I am exercising a measure of denial regarding the dangers of our situation here; otherwise I would have packed up and left long ago.
WHEN DENIAL can kill you, as my psychoanalyst friend declared so dramatically, is when you are unable to believe, or refuse to believe in the existence of a harmful reality. This is often a subconscious thing.
A work colleague who suffered from cancer and eventually succumbed to the disease protested that it was perfectly alright for him to go on smoking “because my doctor told me that the cancer had nothing to do with the smoking.” More recently, I heard a similar sentiment from a friend who is in very precarious health.
I wondered at that doctor’s statement, if indeed it was reported correctly. For even if my colleague’s cancer was not a direct result of his smoking – a very superficial investigation of the question suggested that smoking may negatively affect the nature and course of the disease – the many pernicious effects of cigarettes have long been known and are surely even more harmful to an individual whose system is weakened and under attack.
Perhaps this doctor felt my colleague’s case was hopeless, and so why deny him the pleasure of smoking in the time remaining to him? Another friend in Tel Aviv recently suffered a stroke, luckily minor, and is embarking on a slew of medical tests to try and find out why. His eating habits have always been poor, and his family tease him about being a sugarholic. They are hoping his recent experience has acted as a wakeup call that will lead to an improvement in his diet.
Is he in denial about the link between food and health? I asked his sister. “It’s more like a mixture of denial and ignorance,” she replied. I remarked that many people who regularly feed their bodies with junk would probably be aghast at the idea of keeping their cars going on gas of a comparable low quality.
IT ISN’T hard to find examples of destructive denial, on the national as well as the personal scale. In the wake of last week’s massacre in an Oregon community college, Americans continue in denial over the fact that the wide availability of firearms will lead to more and more mass killings.
Many Europeans are in denial regarding the massive flow of migrants from the Muslim third world entering their countries, a number of which already have a problem with immigrant populations that refuse to recognize the host culture. These countries are in denial of the reality that their “multiculturalism” is leading them down a perilous path.
Closer to home and heart, there have throughout history been Jews in denial regarding their enemies’ intentions toward them, Jews who think that cozying up or making nice or apologizing for their Jewishness will turn foes into friends. It hasn’t happened yet.
A NOTE to women: When I hear the word denial, I remember the remake of a film called The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, based on a Tennessee Williams novella, in which Helen Mirren plays the part of a former Broadway actress in the mid-1950s who goes to Rome after the death of her husband and falls in love with a young gigolo and into the clutches of a seedy procurer.
What hits home is Karen Stone’s desperate and increasingly pathetic attempts to recapture her youth, even while evidence of her age and no-longeryouthful looks confronts and humiliates her repeatedly. Seeing herself painfully clearly and yet in stubborn denial about her age, her suffering is patent and my heart, at least, went out to her again and again. As the film ends, one realizes that this denial may, indeed, end up killing her.
The tragedy of the story – and an object lesson for all women in societies in thrall to youth and external appearance – is that this character is in fact a middleaged woman of considerable attractiveness and charm who has spurned the beauty of her particular stage in life in favor of competing on a playing field on which she can only lose.
It’s an excellent, poignant tale about the lack of self-acceptance and the danger of denial, and women of all ages should see it.