A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Bedtime On Da Nile

Denial is a tool for managing your morale

To quote The Book of the Dread: "Denial is a tool for managing your morale, O mortal."

Anxiety, says the doc, is fear whose cause can't be identified. We've evolved very sensitive threat detectors because, as Gary Larson's "Far Side" used to wink, we're soft and edible, with manicures rather than claws. When anxiety keeps you out of the jaws of a smiling crocodile or inspires you to creative coping efforts, it's welcome. But to be frightened for no reason can be torture. In fact the sudden queasiness is itself frightening, so anxiety can feed on itself, leading to panic attacks, epidemic hysteria, and unscheduled trips to the bathroom.

Denial conditions anxiety. It filters threats, leaving reality spicy but not nauseating. In an emergency, it can act as a circuit breaker. In regulating morale, denial is policing what we can and can't think about—in effect, shaping who you are. But if denial is partly or mostly unconscious, then who's wearing the badge and swinging the nightstick?

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Bill Watterson's savvy comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" used to show the brash young Calvin talking back to imagined monsters under his bed to calm himself for sleep. The logic is straightforward. Like death, sleep requires you to let go of consciousness—of self, really. It's a little death. What you blithely deny during your swashbuckling day suddenly shows up at bedtime like a vampire to bite you. By inventing monsters, Calvin is paradoxically reinforcing his fears yet diminishing them by making them particular enemies. You can fight monsters. You can argue with them. If Calvin had Freud reading him a bedtime story, it would be about the way Calvin is projecting onto the monsters the aggressive urges in himself that he acts out in his daytime adventures.

The comic strip objectifies and mocks anxieties so that the audience—you and I—can master them. Religions work much the same way. The cosmos is terrifyingly violent and hostile to life as we know it. Death is arbitrary and unwelcome, no matter how brilliantly we rationalize it. And you can't get much more invisible than death: it's nothingness and lasts forever—so long that the idea of it is unthinkable. The world's religions fill up that terrible void with stories, rites, and rules: "God." In many religions the monsters under the bed are demons or even that rebellious cosmic brat Satan.

Science, too, works on the invisible, excited by the unknown but also defining and measuring things, testing them and organizing them into natural laws. As history shows, science too can be twisted to project monsters and scapegoats, from racial inferiors to climate change denial. One reason fundamentalist believers become hysterical about science, and especially evolution, is that science represents a tolerance for anxiety and the unknown that is very recent in human development. In effect, science is propelled by a faith that we can know more than we now do, whether or not the whole enchilada is discoverable. You'd think anxious religious imaginations would sympathize.

Satan has been under a lot of beds, from the witch hunts of yore to the recent Satanic abuse scandal in American psychiatry.1 Like the monsters plaguing Calvin, Satan and other demons objectify intolerable motives in ourselves which we split off, attributing them to the hard-working Prince of Darkness. "It's not I who wish for invincible power, greedy pleasure, and the joys of lordly cruelty—it's them demons."

But of course we're ambivalent. Who doesn't dream of being irresistibly naughty now and then? The historian Norman Cohn notes that Satan appears in the middle ages at a time when people were trying to explain why it was so hard to be as perfect as Christ.2

So we're talking about ambivalence: feeling conflicted motives and emotions at the same time. You love your parents (or your kids) keenly at those moments when you don’t resent them for their meddling, failings, and rotten ingratitude. When one side of your ambivalence seems vivid, you may deny the other.

Here's the catch: we're insolubly ambivalent. About everything. It's the way we're built. Cognitively we construct our world out of contrasts and boundaries, figure and ground. Up and down, here and there, love and hate. You want to grow up because it means self-expansive autonomy. But you fear and loathe the prospect of growing up because it means you lose the magic of childhood and smell the bad breath of insinuating death.

One more time: we're insolubly ambivalent.

There is no proper resolution to life. No single right answer to the cosmic test question. At best there's wisdom or grace: a balance or harmonizing of conflicting forces. What the old folks used to call character. And to achieve that balance, needless to say, you have to know what denial is screening out. As that Greek guy said, you have to know yourself.

Look at personality this way and being alive starts to resemble art and criticism: an effort to create something meaningful, even beautiful.  .  .

Well, here on da Nile, Ra is slouching toward the horizon. Frogs are burping in the bulrushes and the ibis has its long curved bill tucked under its wing. Time to tie up for the night. We can muse cross-legged on the bank of the river in the dusk, with the moon spitting glints on the rich muddy flow of the ages.

Nothing like a little poetic gibberish while you're falling asleep, eh? What's that? Still thinking about insoluble ambivalence? Hey, I don't blame you.

Not to worry. We pick up the paddles again in the morning.

 

1. The Satanic abuse delusion imagined a devilish cult devoted to ritual murder that programmed kids to repress these traumatic experiences. It was one offshoot of the hysterical preoccupation with recovered memory, multiple personality, and other dissociative disorders in the 1980's and 90s. The fantasies seduced some psychiatrists and therapists along with some preachers and feminists. Ofra Bikel and Rachel Dretzin's powerful documentary "The Search for Satan" (1995) captured the paranoid witch hunt mentality and its echoes of Soviet psychiatry. The film, once broadcast by PBS Frontline, may only be available now through academic libraries. Not to be missed. For more background, see "The Living End" in my Berserk Style in American Culture.

2. In Europe's Inner Demons.

A different version of this entry appeared at the denial file: <<http://thedenialfile.wordpress.com/

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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