Looking for the Source of Denial
Posted August 20, 2012
Dumb jokes about the longest river in Egypt assume that denial is as familiar to everyone as the Nile is. But explorers were still searching for the source of the Nile just a few years ago (National Geographic News, April 19, 2006), locating it now in "a muddy hole" in the Nyungwe forest, multi-crocodiles, mosquitoes, and miles from the nearest Coke machine. And denial can be just as elusive.
Suppose we launch a denial expedition by following the winding course of the dumb joke. The wordplay on "denial" pokes fun at someone's inability or unwillingness to recognize that they're unable—or unwilling—to face a painful reality. The joke calls attention to an attempt to fool yourself or others by screening things out. If you catch someone "in denial" and refer to it as the longest river in Egypt, your joke is using a euphemism that acknowledges the sensitivity of the subject. But at the same time, the euphemism is slyly mocking not only the avoidance of a painful reality, but also the butt of the joke's denial of being in denial.
Humor gives us a safe way to think about dangerous subjects. After all, who isn't in denial about something? But beyond that, denial usually means someone is being willfully or helplessly blind and therefore out of control—and maybe at risk. Humor allows you to acknowledge the behavior, criticize it, yet also tolerate it. And maybe even forgive it.
But wait, you say. Forgive what?
Conventional wisdom regards denial as a choice or a weakness you can overcome. There's some truth to that. It matters of course because denial can kill you as well as save your life. If you're Franklin Roosevelt, it can make sense for you to be denial about your crippling polio since that gives you more spare time to lead a panicky nation through an economic catastrophe and a world war. Whereas if you're a Nazi bent on fighting to the last breath in the final months of WW2, when the war was plainly lost and yet more people died than in all the earlier years of fighting, then denial has some drawbacks.
So we're of two minds about denial. It can be healthy or toxic. The jokes are ambivalent too. We can laugh at our limitations and foolishness, but also we can feel the pressure of criticism. A quip about the Egyptian river is usually a wry dig—perhaps affectionate and concerned, but perhaps censorious. If the dig is meant to shame someone, it's usually because in this culture you're supposed to be brave and smart enough to face life and death resolutely. Therapists and 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous coax you to be realistic and adapt to the truth.
One complication is that like eating, denial is compulsory. Without editing, the world would be terrifying. One of life's big disappointments is that nobody gets out alive. And once dead, you have a long time to get used to it - so long that the idea of it is unthinkable. No wonder it hurts your feelings. No wonder we've evolved reflexes to avoid threats. No wonder we often recoil from suggestions of death and misfortune without thinking about it.
And no wonder we compensate by overdoing our appetite for life—for sweets and "sweeties," food and sex, youth and prestige. It's not wholly a choice. We eat and mate because otherwise we die and go extinct. But if stuffing your gullet counters fears of deprivation and death, even if it makes you sick, then bingeing too can be a form of denial.
Worse, you can't enjoy your succulent "drumstick" or "coq au vin" unless you kill Chicken Little first. We thrive on an orgy of slaughter, thrice daily. As a species, we spend much of our working lives raising other creatures to kill them.1 Or consider that we're also animals, and as history tells us, tasty meat for others too. We didn't ask to be born this way, but there it is.
Denial helps to tame such mind-blowing conflicts. We invent cuisine and table manners and the rules and rites of religion to manage conflicts that are otherwise stupefying. The "romantic candlelight dinner"—culture—maximizes appetite for food and fertility while screening out the meat cleaver in the kitchen. We rely on culture to harmonize the world, but culture too is colored by denial.
As Ernest Becker insists, we're impossibly conflicted creatures.2 We're biological animals with teeth on one end and an anus on the other, with limbs to catch prey and start the microwave. But we're also symbolic creatures who can conceive of the Higgs boson, the Mona Lisa smile, the yo-yo, and infinity. To keep your mental balance you have to manage these creaturely contradictions. You don’t have a choice.
One route up the Nile to explore this peculiar territory would start with the admission that denial is built into us. It's natural, not just a rare emergency behavior, or a side effect of a hang-up such as addiction. As explorers, we'd be taking for granted that we're always paddling up denial against da current. To put it more exactly, we could start by stopping the denial that we routinely deny denial.
Okay, that last sentence is a tease: a deliberate mind-twister. It's a joke and not a joke. A riddle and not a riddle. You know what the sentence means, but its paradoxes may also leave you with a sense that there are puzzles you could go back and examine again. Denial is a process, not a destination. It opens into the largest questions about who we are and the strangeness of being alive.
Hand me that there paddle, mate.
1. For a look at the conflicts presented by food, have a look on youtube at Mark Lewis's shrewd documentary "The Natural History of the Chicken":
and my Becker Foundation talk about how culture manages such conflicts:
2. American anthropological psychologist Ernest Becker is known for The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil. Check out the Becker Foundation's website:
Photo credit: <<http://www.bigfoto.com/africa/egypt/