I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.
One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.
I was wrong.
Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.
But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.
You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.
Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite — conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.
In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.
Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.
A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”
Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.
Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.
When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.
On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!
I don’t want to admit unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.
When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.
My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now after receiving some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!
Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.
Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.
Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.
Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.
My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.
Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.
As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.
We stand on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.
I’ve been sitting in the breakdown lane this weekend, watching traffic pass me by, (all their cars work!) and wondering why my car, which has been just fine, has suddenly stopped functioning.
We’ve probably all done this at least once, literally speaking. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all done it many times. We go along in our small world, and as far as we know everything is status quo and just what we expect, and then, suddenly, it isn’t. Things go off the rails and all we can think is WTF?
Sometimes I’m the one who has suddenly gone off the rails. Except, looking back, I realize it wasn’t sudden at all. Sometimes the breakdown was years in the making, but I wasn’t present enough with myself and my feelings to notice the gradual fraying and come up with a plan. Grimly, I hung on, hoping, waiting, hurting myself, arguing with what was, denying my experience, trying harder, drowning in shame, crippled by fear, until I absolutely could not hang on any longer and my last fingernail tore out.
Then I let go, after it was far too late to problem solve or help myself or anyone else involved.
I still regret I have not always had the support or resources to make different choices. I hurt myself, and I hurt others. I take responsibility for my behavior and clean up what I can, but some things just can’t be fixed — and perhaps shouldn’t be in any case.
I think a lot about these sudden moments where things fall apart, either within us or between us. The breakdown lane is like a time out, an enforced pause. In a moment or two, the whole aspect of the day, the future, and my plans have changed. I realize I’m not in control. All I have is an unpleasant snarl of disappointed expectations, thwarted intentions, frustration, anger and a need to blame someone or something, including myself.
A broken car or piece of equipment is one thing. An interpersonal breakdown is another.
Few things are more painful than feeling unloved, unwanted or rejected by someone we care about. Hell, it’s painful when we feel those things from someone we don’t care about. Imagine being an immigrant in this country right now.
I have felt unloved, unwanted and rejected. I’ve also had loved ones tell me they feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by me. As I know that’s not how I feel about them, I question my certainty that others feel that way about me. If they’re misinterpreting my actions, words and choices, perhaps I’m doing the same thing.
Our feelings are real. The stories we make up about them may not be. In other words, I might feel rejected when the person I’m interacting with has no intention of sending that message. The way I express love and affection may be so different from someone else’s idea of how to express it that it’s lost in translation.
That doesn’t mean it’s not present.
I focus a great deal on language in this blog. I do that because words matter. They have layers of meaning. It seems to me nearly every interpersonal breakdown can be traced to a misunderstanding over a definition of terms. Getting at the bottom-line meaning of a word is as easy as looking it up:
Friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” (Oxford online dictionary)
Pretty simple, right? We all know what it means to be a friend and have a friend.
Except we don’t. We might agree on that basic definition, but I suspect we each assign a whole world of additional personal meaning to the word friend, and that world contains longings, memories, hopes and fears, expectations, deep needs, beliefs, and old scars and wounds.
I’ve been thinking about that. When I talk about, think about and participate in friendship, what does that mean to me? What is a friend, besides someone I know and with whom I have a bond of mutual affection?
It’s a great question. I wish I could ask everyone I know. I won’t, because for some reason this kind of question seems to make most people uncomfortable, but feel free to volunteer an answer!
At this point in my life, I’m not interested in constructing relationships out of expectations and an attachment to outcomes. I’ve always operated in a framework of both of those in my relationships, and it’s never worked. In the last four years I’ve taken a clear, cold look at my previously unconscious expectations of self and others and the myriad ways in which I’ve sabotaged myself and others with attachment to certain agendas and outcomes.
What I do instead (and a joyous, fascinating, loving process it is) is observe with curiosity and interest as relationships form and change. Viewed from this perspective, it’s like nurturing a child, a garden where we’ve planted seeds, an animal, or a piece of land. Freed from my extremely limited and limiting expectations and agenda, I can watch and appreciate all the unexpected, magnificent ways we are — and life is.
It’s the difference between saying: “This is who I (or the other) must or must not be,” and “Who are you?” or, even better, “I want everything you are and nothing you’re not.” Say that (and mean it) to yourself or someone you love every day and I guarantee your relationships will change for the better.
So, now, what do I mean by a friend?
A friend is someone with whom I can laugh, explore new information and ideas, excavate less-than-useful beliefs and patterns, learn and unlearn. A friend is someone with whom I engage in a contest of generosity. I want to ask questions, pull things out from under the bed and let the cat sniff at them, be wrong, problem solve, consider options. I want to practice boundaries, tolerance, respect and being real. I want to allow and be allowed. I want relationships that make my life bigger. I want to share reading, movies, music, memories, silence, work, nature, my truths. I want someone who says, “make yourself big!” while pursuing that same goal themselves.
(Not coincidentally, this is the kind of friend I strive to be to others.)
When I consider the above paragraph, and imagine each of us could write an equally long but different paragraph, the concept of friend goes rapidly from a simple one-sentence definition to something much more complicated and personal. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were aware of it, but we’re not. We say friend, knowing exactly what we mean, and never considering the person we’re talking to, who’s also using the word, means something different.
Then, one day, these two invisible sets of definitions, expectations and desired outcomes collide and we experience hurt, outrage, betrayal, anger, disappointment, rejection, fear, and disconnection.
I admit I have no fix for this ubiquitous problem. Even being aware of how differently we define terms doesn’t save me from ending up sitting in the breakdown lane. It would be good if the problematic words in any given relationship had a tag warning us of problems ahead if we aren’t careful to understand one another from the beginning.
On the other hand, that would take out the part where we sit in the breakdown lane trying to understand what just happened, how and if to fix it, and how our choices led to it. Uncomfortable as it is, I value that opportunity.
Sitting in the breakdown lane with my heartbeat and breath. Feeling my feelings. Curious about what will happen next. Confident that when it’s time to move on I’ll know it and do so. Considering what I might learn in this space. Getting bigger. Getting bigger. Getting bigger.
Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:
I get what I deserve I deserve what I get
I have it, therefore I deserve it
I deserve it because I have it.
You have not got it therefore you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it because you have not got it
You have not got it because you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it therefore you have not got it. —R.D. Laing, Knots
This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!
So, what does it mean to deserve something?
Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?
Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?
Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!
The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?
No. I don’t believe that.
My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Resources page) teaches me life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.
There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.
I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.
We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.
We will discover — we are discovering — we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.
Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws governing the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.
As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.
The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, I’m ready to let go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.
As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”
Identity is everywhere. Identity theft, identity politics, job applications, and social media profiles confront us at every turn. We are constantly being commanded to prove our identity, not only formally, as in logging on to our bank accounts, but socially, in order to justify our existence, our beliefs and our values.
Technology has created new challenges in the way we talk about, understand and shape our identity. AI is no longer a piece of science fiction, and evidence grows regarding websites, social media trolls and other online entities that successfully manipulate, divide and interfere with social discourse, information and opinion.
We are woefully easy targets.
Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash
Merriam-Webster online defines identity as “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” The online Free Dictionary says identity is “the set of characteristics by which a person or thing is definitively recognizable or known; the awareness that an individual or group has of being a distinct, persisting entity.”
Objective reality. The term objective means “(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” (Oxford Dictionary; emphasis mine.) This means a purple-polka-dotted snake cannot claim the identity of a green-striped zebra, no matter how indignantly and vociferously it insists it feels like one. Personality disorders are recognized as such because those who suffer from them are not always dealing with objective reality. A purple-polka-dotted snake who wants to be a green-striped zebra is divided tragically from itself and others, not only other purple-polka-dotted snakes, but all others, because it persists in trying to behave and be accepted as something it’s not, ultimately self-destructing.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash”
I’ve written before about labels, denial, arguing with what is and pseudo self, all of which ideas intersect with identity. Have you watched a potter at work with clay on a wheel? As they shape a vessel, one hand works inside and one outside. Identity is like that. The tribe we’re born into gives us our earliest sense of identity, and we take our cues from them. If our tribe is critical and we feel unaccepted and unloved, we internalize those voices and viewpoints and give them power in our psyche to mold our identity. At the same time, we go out into the world and our schools, jobs, communities, places of worship and other organizations identify us from the outside.
Years ago I worked with a group of gifted and talented middle and high school students as a school librarian. None of them fit in terribly well with their classmates. A young man I was very fond of was quite lonely, as well as being brilliant, and he said one day he was nothing but the “fat boy.” He was sixteen years old, and seemed resigned to carrying the identity of “fat boy” to the end of his life. I told him, entirely sincerely, that I never thought of him as the “fat boy.” He was obese. Obviously, I noticed. But to me he was a funny, interesting, curious, compassionate, vulnerable human being. His weight concerned me because of the social stigma and quality of his health, but I never thought of him as the “fat boy.”
He could see that I was telling him the truth. I haven’t any idea what happened to him or what he’s been doing all these years, but I’ve always hoped he remembered there was an adult in his life who saw beyond the limitations of “fat boy” and recognized other pieces of his identity and potential. I hope he learned at some point that he didn’t have to settle for a life defined by his weight.
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash
Over the years of my lifetime, more and more people seem to never mature past teenage identity. We build websites, profiles and a social media presence, desperately trying to sell a successful identity for attention, true love, power or money. We are so compulsive about taking selfies that we die doing it. There’s an explosion of people seeking plastic surgery in order to match their digitally-altered pictures. We have the technology to alter hair color, eye color and physical characteristics, and we’re saturated with digitally-altered images on media that keep us firmly convinced we’re unattractive and imperfect as we are. At the same time, we socially reinforce and perpetuate ridiculous gender, racial and ethnic roles, limitations and expectations.
Perfect strangers insist on imposing labels on us, or try to bully us into choosing one label over another. It’s an either-or black-and-white world, and new labels proliferate like maggots in road kill, creating ever-increasing lines of division and arenas for conflict.
Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash
We are in such a hurry, we’re so overstimulated and anxious to not be left behind and to be validated, we’ve forgotten the simplicity of identity, and we’ve forgotten we don’t owe the world a public explanation or justification of our identity. Having a Facebook or Tinder profile does not constitute an identity. Having feelings and opinions about who we are is not an identity. Our carefully constructed pseudo self is not an identity. Our identity is not maintained and created by what others think, feel or say about us. Identity is not an endpoint, but a journey. Healthy identity is flexible. It adapts and changes as we live our lives. We are not who we wish we were, who we are afraid we are or necessarily who we think we are. We are not exactly who we were yesterday or who we’ll be tomorrow. We’re certainly not necessarily what others tell us we are, or must be, although objective reality always trumps our internal fantasies.
Our identity, like our power, is ours alone. We need not sell it or give it away, and it cannot be stolen from us. On the other hand, we must take responsibility for our own self-sabotage and mental disorders if we seek a healthy identity.
Healthy identity is complex and multi-dimensional. I’ve been daughter, sister, wife and mother, and I’m much more than any of those single roles. I’ve worked several jobs over my lifetime, but I’m more than any of those jobs. I have a physical identity in terms of vital statistics, Caucasian skin, blue eyes and female biology, but none of those markers identify me as completely as the fact that I’m a human being. A healthy identity also accommodates shadows, scars, less-than-useful coping mechanisms and behavior patterns.
My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.” Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Tech allows us to create superficial fantasies of bright colors and pleasurable images, but those worlds are empty and brittle, like an enticing piece of candy that melts in a minute on our tongue and leaves nothing but the taste of sugar and artificial flavor. We cannot judge identity by houses, gardens, cars, vacations, pets, children, selfies, clothing, jobs or partners. Our possessions, our pictures and our memorabilia are not our identity. Somewhere, under all that stuff, behind all those pictures of success and happiness, apart from our fear and unwillingness to come to terms with our objective reality and our denial, lies the powerful, complex, fascinating, valuable person we really are, and that person longs to be identified and welcomed into life. That person longs to give and receive love, make a valued contribution and live authentically.
I’m interested in the way people self-define and introduce themselves. It always points to either what we ourselves feel is the largest part of our identity or what we think others will value or connect with most readily. This is what lies beneath every dating profile. What do we imagine prospective partners will be most attracted to? What’s the perfect thing to say which will limit unwanted matches and encourage those we imagine might provide whatever we’re looking for? How can we optimize the algorithm and make it work for us?
Sometimes I walk away from meeting a new person feeling overwhelmed and deafened by all the ways they labeled themselves but with no sense of the real human being I just interacted with. Instead of an easy, exploratory, getting-to-know-one-another conversation, I was bludgeoned with political jargon and identifiers, patronized and gratuitously instructed out of some kind of claimed expertise. It feels aggressive, weak and demanding. This is who I am and you will recognize my status, authority and identity! If you don’t apply one of my proud labels to yourself, you should. All the best people do. In any event, my labels are better than yours.
Our identity is not for others, but for ourselves. We’re the ones who need to know who we are, experience our feelings and monitor our thoughts. We’re the ones in charge of our dignity, our sexuality and our choices. We’re the ones responsible for our own integrity. As my hair greys and my fertility wanes, I become more and more physically invisible in the world. At the same time, I’ve never been as strong, as resilient, as wise and as compassionate as I am now. I’ve never loved so well. I’ve never felt so whole or comfortable in my own skin. I have no social media accounts and no cell phone. I don’t use any kind of apps, dating or otherwise. My identity is strong and dynamic, and it’s not for sale or on display. In fact, I’ve always felt being invisible is a great advantage. People who attract no attention are invariably underestimated and overlooked, especially aging female people.
At the end of the day, a life well lived is about being who we are, objective reality included, because everyone else is taken. Fantasy is fun, but real life is where all the juice is.
My daily crime.
“I look like vanilla pudding so nobody knows that on the inside I am spider soup.” Andrea Portes, Anatomy of a Misfit
I looked up the word “denial” to find a quick definition as a starting point for this post. Fifteen minutes later I was still reading long Wiki articles about denial and denialism. They’re both well worth reading. I realize now the subject of denial is much bigger than I first supposed, and one little blog post cannot do justice to its history and scope.
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
I wanted to write about denial because I keep tripping over it. It seems to lurk in the background of every experience and interaction, and it’s nearly always accompanied by its best buddy, fear. I’ve lately made the observation to my partner that denial appears more powerful than love in our culture today.
I’ve written before about arguing with what is, survival and being wrong, all related to denial. I’ve also had bitter personal experience with workaholism and alcoholism, so denial is a familiar concept and I recognize it when I see it.
I see it more every day.
I was interested to be reminded that denial is a useful psychological defense mechanism. Almost everyone has had the experience of a sudden devastating psychological shock such as news of an unexpected death or catastrophic event. Our first reaction is to deny and reject what’s happening. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first of five stages of psychology in a dying patient. Therein lies the distinction between denial as part of a useful and natural cycle and denial as a permanent coping mechanism. In modern psychology denial is followed by other stages as we struggle to come to terms with a difficult event. We (hopefully) move through the stages, gathering our resources to cope with what’s true and coming to terms with the subsequent changes in our lives.
Denialism, on the other hand, is a “choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth” (Wikipedia). For some, denial is an ideology.
In other words, denialsim is all about fear, fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of painful feelings, fear of loss of power, fear of one’s cover being blown. This is why some of the most rabid and vicious homophobes are in fact homosexual. Unsurprisingly, projection and gaslighting are frequently used by those who practice denialism.
I’ve no doubt denial is an integral part of the human psyche. I never knew anyone who didn’t have a knee-jerk ability to deny. I do it. My partner does it. My friends and family do it. My partner and I have a code phrase: “I’m not a vampire,” that comes from the TV series Angel in a hilarious moment when a vampire is clearly outed by one of the other characters. He watches her put the evidence together: “… nice place… with no mirrors, and… lots of curtains… Hey! You’re a vampire!” “What?” he says. “No I’m not,” with absolutely no conviction whatsoever. It always makes us giggle. If Angel is too low-brow for you, consider William Shakespeare and “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Denial is not a new and unusual behavior.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
The power of denial is ultimately false, however. Firstly and most obviously, denial does not affect the truth. We don’t have to admit it, but truth is truth, and it doesn’t care whether we accept it or not. Secondly, denial is a black hole of ever-increasing complications. Take, for example, flat-earthers. Think for a moment about how much they have to filter every day, how actively they have to guard against constant threats to their denialsim. Everything becomes a battlefield, any form of science-related news and programming; many types of print media; images, both digital and print, now more widely available than ever; and simple conversation. I can’t imagine trying to live like that, embattled and defensive on every front. It must take enormous energy. I frankly don’t understand why anyone would choose such hideous complications. It seems to me much easier to wrestle with the problem itself than deal with all the consequences of denying there is a problem.
Maybe that’s just me.
It seems our denial becomes more important than love for others or love for ourselves. It becomes more important than our integrity, our health, our friends and family, loyalty, and respect or tolerance. Our need to deny can swallow us whole, just as I’ve seen work and alcohol swallow people whole. Denial refuses collaboration, cooperation, honest communication, problem solving and, most of all, learning. Denialism is always hugely threatened by any attempt to share new information or ask questions.
Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash
Denial is a kind of spiritual malnutrition. It makes us small. Our sense of humor and curiosity wither. Fear sucks greedily on our power. We become invested in keeping secrets and hiding things from ourselves as well as others. We allow chaos to form around us so we don’t have to see or hear anything that threatens our denial.
This is not the kind of fear that makes our heart race and our hands sweat. This is the kind of fear that feels like a slamming steel door. It’s cold. It’s certain. We say, “I will not believe that. I will not accept that.”
And we don’t. Not ever. No matter what.
A prominent pattern of folks in denial is that they work hard to pull other people into validating them. Denial works best in a club, the larger the better. The ideology of denialism demands strong social groups and communities that actively seek power to silence others or force them into agreement. Not tolerance, but agreement. This behavior speaks to me of a secret lack of strength and conviction, even impotence. If we are not confused about who we are and what we believe, there’s no need to recruit and coerce others to our particular ideology. If you believe the earth is flat, it’s fine with me. I’m not that interested, frankly. I disagree, but that’s neither here nor there, and I don’t need you to agree with my view. When I find myself recruiting others to my point of view, I know I’m distressed and unsure of my position and I’m not dealing effectively with my feelings.
I’ve written before about the OODA loop, which describes the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide and act. The ability to move quickly and effectively through the OODA loop is a survival skill. Denial is a cheat. It masquerades as a survival strategy, but in fact it disables the loop. It keeps us from adapting. It keeps us dangerously rigid rather than elegantly resilient.
Some people have a childlike belief that if something hasn’t happened, it won’t, as in this river has never flooded, or this town has never burned, or we’ve never seen a category 6 hurricane. Our belief that bad things can’t happen at all, or won’t happen again, pins us in front of the oncoming tsunami or the erupting volcano. It allows us to rebuild our homes in places where flood, fire and lava have already struck. We ignore, minimize or deny what’s happening to the planet and to ourselves. We don’t take action to save ourselves. We don’t observe and orient ourselves to change.
Some things are just too bad to be true. I get it, believe me. I’m often afraid, and I frequently walk through denial, but I’m damned if I’ll build a house there. The older I get, the more determined I am to embrace the truth. I don’t care how much pain it gives me or how much fear I feel. I want to know, to understand, to see things clearly, and then make the best choices I can. It’s the only way to stay in my power. I refuse to cower before life as it is, in all its mystery, pain and terrible beauty.
Ultimately, denial is weak. I am stronger than that.