The Nasty Denial Game

This is posted with permission from Resty Odon.

When does life begin? How could people deny the simple answer to something so basic a question? The answer is so obvious one does not really need an embryology expert if one only listened attentively in class or read the textbook (“Life -– conception –- begins at fertilization, right at the moment when the sperm meets the egg”).

The bigger question now is why human beings, from doctors to senators, deny the truth, or at least the fact we’ve always known as the truth (because as far as we know, there has been no scientific breakthrough debunking it)? The easy answer is because they are human, i.e., fallen beings just like the rest of us. Human beings have this nasty habit of being in denial whenever something is so hurtful they would rather die than bear the pain.

People will squirm in their seat, drop you as friend, shout invectives, altogether shut up and give the silent treatment or the cold shoulder for the rest of your life, or shift the conversation all of a sudden to a bizarre digression, all because they are incapable of countenancing, much less confronting, what they’ve just heard at the moment.

The sudden outburst is probably the most reliable telltale sign of a person in the grip of denial. He or she would rather kill or die rather than face the truth or hear it told in his presence precisely because (he or she thinks) it is a life and death situation for her.

I’ve been an unfortunate witness to a conversation between a man and a little boy who I happen to know doesn’t live with his mother (because she was estranged from her lover a few years after the boy was born). The man said audibly, “Uhm, where’s your mother, kid?” Even knowing the kid’s background, I still got surprised with the six-year-old’s reaction. It was the least I expected: The boy suddenly made his voice louder and changed the topic, deflecting the unspeakable by confronting the man with a totally unrelated question. I didn’t like the kid, who was too boisterous for me and obnoxiously high-pitched too, but I suddenly pitied him I wished the subject would never be raised again in his presence (though for sure it will).

Denial is as fascinating as it is tragic, that’s why it is often the subject of great literature. In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Miss Brill,” we sympathize with a woman in denial about her advanced age and deep loneliness that we get hurt when some young people’s careless remarks bring the plain truth in her face. In Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, a delusional aging high-class whore gets her comeuppance when she runs into the misfortune of living under the roof of a brash, uneducated monster of a man, and yet we cry for the lady instead of the man a pat in the back. In Tennessee Williams’ other great play The Glass Menagerie, we weep for the mother who is in the pits of self-denial about her daughter and the inevitable loss of their station in life.

These and other stories of wanton denial show how pitiful deniers are more than they are infuriating. They are pitiful not only because they refuse or resist to see the truth the rest of us see plainly, but also because they resist at all and they resist at all costs for a reason that is pitiable. If we discover they can’t face the plain truth, we understand because we identify with their frailty and, even in our unkindness, prefer to drop the subject and quit pursuing the quest for truth. Maybe it’s an unconscious identification with the fact that we all deny, in one way or another.

We deny we are needy in some way. We deny we’re insecure. We deny we hate. We deny we are angry. We deny we are frustrated. We deny fear rejection or disapproval. We deny we look lowly at people’s weaknesses that we deathly fear to have inside us that’s why we’re irrationally angry at the mere sight of the person. We deny we might feel a little attracted to the same sex that’s why we hate people who proudly identify themselves as gay. Men especially deny they are weak and women especially deny they feel ugly, and project those feelings on who they perceive as weak or ugly. We deny we have a fallen sensuous side that’s why we have an extreme fear of nudity and repulsed by pornography and obscenity. We deny we have a stubborn rebellious streak. We deny we have some imperfections. We deny and deny and deny because we are proud. But we are proud only because we are so insecure, and we deny it, and so the vicious cycle goes on.

This is what I observe routinely in one teenage friend of mine who has a terrible problem with alcoholism and porn addiction yet laughably denies it even when caught in flagrante delicto. He would go, “No, this is nothing” or “No, I’m like this just for today.” I then give him a “Who are you fooling, kid?” look, which is always ineffective because it has been walled off by this preemptive strategy called denial, rampart -thick denial, before it is even uttered. The scene would have been so hilarious if it were not so pathetic at the same time. The denial is practically crying for another award-winning parodic film.

I am not saying that the world suddenly confess its many sins of denial. All I’m pointing out is that denial is intrinsically bad even if it’s protective, and just being aware of it is enough to nip it in the bud.

Denial becomes a crime when there’s an element of consciousness: when the denier knows he is denying. Denial is especially a problem, when it intersects with a clear crime, i.e., when it breaches the line of legality. Denial is especially dangerous when the denier is free and achieves enough status of power to participate in an even nastier game called the politicking of the truth. In cases such as this, we are rightly enraged, as our basic sense of right and wrong is violated, our very own peace disturbed or threatened in an insidious way.

Who is in denial consciously versus unconsciously? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell, but we’ve seen so many cases of criminal denials in many a Senate hearing “in aid of legislation.” We’ve seen numerous denials through the years of the Marcos dictatorship, with their consistent black (and white) propagandas. We routinely see it in Imelda Marcos’ regular denials of the many crimes the Marcos dictatorship committed. We are incredulous at the deniers of the Holocaust (a strain explored in the Bernhard Schlink’s book The Reader). We almost go insane upon seeing people at the police station or in jail denying to death they ever did a wrong. We are rightfully incensed when doctors and senators deny that life begins “at conception and not at consensus” to steal somebody’s wicked witticism. We are fit to be tied when some supposed professionals deny certain irregular compulsive behaviors could ever be disordered, and since they couldn’t countenance this, coerce an entire (cowardly) profession to help them deny that they are in denial.

The worst danger of denial is producing entire generations believing in and living an entire lie, as denied truths are replaced with beautiful and more palatable untruths.

But the joke is always ultimately on the denier. The universe inescapably springs a surprise for the denier, in case he realizes at all in the end what an absurd joke all that fearing has been, what an absurd joke all that he thought was a life-and-death thing. Why? Because nobody really cares, so why bother? Because not everyone, if at all, thinks about it every time. Because not everyone who does, thinks it so bad. Because other things and other people are a lot worse off. Because the denier is not what people think he is, nor even what he thinks he is, because if he believes he wasn’t born that way (in contrast to that hideously illogical Lady Gaga song), then what is there to whine about? The denier is bound to see in the end that all that is not worth the stress, the addiction, the depression, the nervous breakdown and nuclear meltdown, but by then it will too late.

Also read Resty’s post: On Denial.

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One comment on “The Nasty Denial Game
  1. monica nepomuceno says:

    hit the nail on the head!

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