The Human Condition:

In Defense of Denial – March 30, 2014

Total, unblinking honesty

People make a big point these days of feeling superior to those around them whom they believe to be “in denial.” What they mean is that the poor fools can’t see or bear to acknowledge their obvious faults, the crap in their lives, or the avalanche hanging over their heads. Denial is a bad thing, according to popular mythology. Denial is a weakness. Denial is cowardice.

I would maintain that the ability of the human brain to know something at a basic level and yet set it aside from active consciousness is not only a strength but a survival trait. Absolute honesty, in life as in etiquette, can be a dangerous thing. It can hurt your feelings and those of the people around you. It can keep you from achieving your potential. And sometimes it can kill you.

And the question always arises: What is truth? Or, whose honesty is the one that matters, anyway?

How many people would make it to the end of a bad day if they had to gauge the quality of their experience or their performance every minute and reach an honest and final judgment of either “This is going well” or “Well, this sucks”? Such honesty usually requires a broader view—an Olympian overview—and consideration of many and varied factors. Who has time for that in a busy schedule, doing productive work, or in the midst of conflicting stresses?

Worse yet, how many of us could afford to say—like some kind of sitcom character—“This job sucks! Shove it!” We would then be in that place of cold and windy freedom, with dozens of new and exciting options before us but not a lot of security. No paycheck to pay the rent, buy food, or put something aside for a rainy day. Every day we’re offered the opportunity to throw it all away like this in a fit of blazing honesty and make the rain come down … Now!

For most of us, who live outside the drama and excitement of a television series, the greater act of bravery is to put on emotional blinders, adopt the short-range view, put aside the grand questions, and get on with the job: meet another customer, write another report, or grind another ax blade. Most jobs have more of what we used to call “scut work” than the exciting and creative action that drew us to that kind of work in the first place. The only way to deal with boring and menial tasks is to put your head down and chug through them. This is not properly called denial but survival.

Sometimes, denial comes in handy when a person becomes aware of imminent death. In that moment, between seeing the avalanche bearing down on you and deciding what to do, you can become frozen with the realization “I’m gonna die” and preoccupied with the end-stage scenario of entertaining your fondest wishes and deepest regrets. Or you can choose to move sideways, crouch and create an air pocket, or do whatever will get you through the experience and prepare yourself for the life that comes afterward.1

And it’s not just in the moment of approaching death that we exercise positive denial. I remember reading in one of Robert A. Heinlein’s books,2 that the working definition of an adult is someone who has come to grips with the knowledge that he or she is going to die someday. Children at first assume they’re going to live forever, because that’s all they know. Then, when they understand about death, they believe that somehow they’re special and will cheat the hangman. An adult knows that death comes to all life forms—that the possibility of death practically defines the idea of life—and that he or she is not different or immune.

This is a liberating thought, in the sense that the adult has a yardstick with which to judge personal action and necessity. If a person were going to live forever unless brought down by unnatural causes, then life itself would become too precious. No sane person would take the slightest risk, knowing that he or she was gambling future eternity against any possible gains from the present action. But knowing that the choice of dying is merely between now and later, and that “later” might come after long years of shame, regret, disability, isolation, slavery, or some other unworthy condition, while “now” might achieve something useful and worthwhile for family and loved ones, the thoughtful person would have grounds for making an intelligent choice.

All adult, thinking persons have this awareness and can bring it to bear at appropriate times of choice. But most of the time it’s useful to put that black dog back in its kennel and get on with the business of living. Otherwise—and with the wrong admixture of depressing chemicals in the brain—it can be an invitation to despair, to giving up, letting go, resigning, and fading away. That is not the act of a hopeful adult, and sometimes hope springs from simple denial, if from nowhere else.3

Sometimes, denial in the face of death can get a person through the transition4 without a wave of personal anguish. As the state of shock can be a friend, allowing the body to experience great trauma and even death without immediate, crippling pain, so denial can permit the person to die in a state of relative hope and peace.

And finally, every thoughtful person who is trying to achieve something beyond his or her station must face inevitable doubts. Anyone who sets out to write a book or a symphony, paint a picture, perform in some sport or entertainment at a professional level, or otherwise set him- or herself apart in the public eye, must acknowledge the inevitable limits of talent, energy, ambition, and nerve. Any human being must face the possibility of having committed to more than he or she can deliver and question whether failure is indeed a possibility. Only a fool is steeped in limitless self-confidence.

Whether the work of one’s mind or hands will be great or not is for others to decide. And the yardsticks those others will bring to the judgment may not be the ones the artist used in creating the work. That external judgment might be replete with truth and blazing honesty, but it might also be off the mark. Working from the inside, having followed a set of personal principles and exercised a measure of talent, the artist has no special place in the judgment. So, to continue with the work at hand or in the practice of one’s talent, it helps to be able to put aside questions of worth and greatness, exercise selective denial, and simply go ahead with the best will and effort available.5

The ability to willingly enter a state of denial is a useful aspect of the human condition. It lets us function in the face of drudgery, despair, and doubt. It lets us go on when a blinding spasm of honesty might bring down the end of our efforts.

1. I’m reminded of the story of the test pilot—it might have been in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, but maybe somewhere else—who was asked what he would do if his plane were falling out of the sky and he only had sixty seconds to live. His response was that for the first fifty seconds he would think about the best course of action to take and then take it in the last ten seconds. No room for Kübler-Ross–style stages of anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Bang! Do the denial up front and figure a way out.

2. Don’t ask me which one—I’ve already tried to find it and failed.

3. To quote another Heinlein character, this one in Glory Road, “While I breathe, I hope”—in Latin, Dum spiro, spero—which is about the most positive attitude toward life that I know.

4. To what? One wonders. That is the question to which only the truly dead—who don’t come back—know the answer.

5. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis notes that a man is not often called upon to have an opinion—good or bad, one way or another—about his own talents or his place in history. That thought sometimes brings me great comfort.