Denial of an interior, inner, unconscious self, is not an isolated abdication. Whether its basis lies in a profound and inexorable denial of death, as many have suggested, is both reasonable and yet a trifle reductionistic. Our enforced compliance with linear, cause-effect silver-bullet explanations is one of the many complicating implications of denial.
“Confucius supposedly said that the rectification of society starts with the rectification of its language. This suggests that a careful use of words comes before new laws, new programs, and new leaders. Laws and programs begin in words, and if the words of our leaders are entangled in garbled speech, intoned as nasal whining, bereft of inspiration and wit, and flatter than the commercials that surround them, then we can’t expect the society to prosper….When the magic of language withers, we are left in the desolate condition Charles Darwin…describes as a ‘loss of happiness,’ and our minds become, as he says, ‘ a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact.’ He here refers to the literal level of language which gives accurate accounts, as the length of a board or how to put up a folding cot. When (Robert) Frost speaks of as dreary kind of ‘grammatical prose’ and Thoreau, of the language of ‘common sense,’ they are warning about the deadening effect of literal language.” (James Hillman, Language: Speaking Well and Speaking Out, in The rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, Poems for Men, Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, editors, pp.155-156)
From the same source (p.163), here is a passage written by Henry David Thoreau:
On Being Extravagant
I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance! It depends on how you are yarded…
I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression…
Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense of the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring…
“They pretend,” as I hear, “that the verses of Kabir have four different senses: illusion, spirit, intellect and the exoteric doctrine of the Vedas”; but in this part of the world it is considered a ground for complaint if a man’s writings admit of more than one interpretation. While England endeavors to cure the potato-rot, will not any endeavor to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally?
In another section of the same source entitled, Making a Hole in Denial, Robert Bly writes these words:
It’s possible that the United States has achieved the first consistent culture of denial in the modern world. Denial can be considered as an extension—into all levels of society—of the naïve person’s inability to face the harsh facts of life.
The health of any nation’s soul depends on the capacity of adults to face the harsh facts of the time. But the covering up of painful emotions inside us and the blocking out of fearful images coming from the outside have become in our country the national and private style. We have established, with awesome verse, the animal od denial as the guiding beast of the nation’s life. The inner city collapses, and we build bad housing projects rather than face the bad education, lack of jobs, and persistent anger at black people. When the homeless increase, we build dangerous shelters rather than face the continuing decline in actual wages. Of course we know this beast lives in every country: we have been forced lately to look at our beast. As the rap song has it: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”…
In this situation, art and literature are more important than ever before. Essays, poetry, fiction, still relatively cheap to print, are the best hope in making headway against denial. The corporate deniers own television. We can forget about that. There’s no hope in commercial television at all. The schools teach denial by not teaching, and the students’ language is so poor that they can’t do anything but deny. School boards forbid teachers in high school to teach conflict, questioning of authority, picking apart of arguments, mockery of news and corporate lies….David Ignatow points out in ‘A First on TV’ that one of the most popular forms of denial now is the agreement television anchors have not to become excited about anything. This coolness is spreading to the whole population…
Our particular denial, the denial practiced in American culture, involves a protection of innocence. Mark Twain talks of “Innocents Abroad.” France knows its history, England its, but we have a passionate dedication to not-knowing. Our wars are always noble, our bombing surgical, intended to make the patient better.
Great art and literature are the only models we have left to help us stop lying. The greater the art the less the denial. We don’t need avant-garde art now, bhut great art. Breaking through the wall of denial helps us get rid of self-pity, and replaces self-pity with awe at the complicated misery of all living things.
A poem that confronts denial has a certain tone; it is dark but not pulled down by evil. It is intense but not hysterical; it feels weighty, and there is something bitter in it, as if the writer were fighting against great resistance when he or she writes the poem….
Eating bitter means to turn and face life, If we deny our animalness, our shit and death, if we refuse to see the cruelties and abuse by S&L executives, presidents, and sexual abusers, it means we have turned our backs on life. It we have turned our backs on life, don’t be surprised if we kill the poor, the homeless, ourselves, and the earth. Getting rid of denial, then, means getting used to the flavor of “butter,” getting used to have that flavor of bitter truth in the mouth. (p. 195-197-198-199)
Let these words but be misconstrued as an apology for the noxious and contemptible, the racist and misogynistic acts, words, attitudes, beliefs and hatred of the current occupant of the Oval Office. And also, while the words are written specifically about the United States, there is a clear and present danger in their relevance and application to the country on the north side of the 49th parallel. Canada likes to think we are a “polite” and political and racially pure, more moderate and less contemptible version of the United States, borrowing more from our French and British and First Nations heritage. Just a more sophisticated and thereby more deceptive, less visible and less readily noticed incarnation of denial!
The evidence of suppression of radical, intense, even exaggerated expression abounds, especially in those primarily politically correct institutions the school and the church. Telling the truth is subsumed and buried in the protection of the people in charge, from the principal and the superintendent to the bishop who themselves are so deeply in denial of the reality over which they hold sway that they are afraid to disclose its truth.
I once wrote a scathing email to a “suit” in a local service club who had presumed to recruit me for an activity without including me in the decision. Another “senior” officer in the club retorted, “You should not have done that, even though what you wrote was the truth!” A church bishop in a serious and private conversation warned me, “People, you know John, cannot stand too much truth!” as if my pursuit of truth, as a journalist, educator and then apprentice-clergy was inappropriate for the practice of ministry. How dangerously accurate was his warning.
Only a few months later, that same bishop assigned me to a parish deeply writhing in the agony of a previous clergy’s having shot a dog and turned the gun on the owner of the dog. Such highly charged and relevant information was never delivered to this “innocent” who walked blindly into the ‘fire’ of that cauldron, where, on a sunny Sunday morning at six, I was awakened by the sound of shattering glass. Immediately across the street, a young man had used his bare fist to break the windshield of this half-ton, deeply angry and frustrated that he could not find his sun glasses. As a father of four children under the age of six, with another four rifles hanging on the wall of his living room, this man was exhibiting potentially dangerous behaviour. Within a couple of hours, his parents were asking me to “get help” by invoking the service of their family doctor. When I called the doctor, who incidentally had delivered the young man at his birth, the doctor informed me he had no previous indication of the imminent danger. Nevertheless, the young man was admitted to hospital later that day, probably as a precautionary measure. When I discussed the issue with the local child service agency, their report continues to echo in my memory: “We never get any reports of children in danger from that community; they all cover for each other and keep their secrets!”
Not incidentally, I learned about the “dog shooting” and the “gun turned on the owner” from a fifteen-year-old while sharing lunch in the local McDonald’s, while his mother visited the rest room.
And then there is the story, in the same parish, of the religious “right” whose proponents occupied the self-appointed gate-keeper role, one of whom vigorously told me to leave when I resisted the showing of a religious-right video that I must leave. This was at a time only a few months after my arrival, and only after a promise of ordination from the bishop had been cancelled on the nefarious and devious report of an interim clergy opposing my renting of an office as a needed and planned and affordable escape from this parish. And the story of the warden-wannabee, a daughter of the ‘founding family’ of the church, who when I deferred and appointed a relative new-comer, a spiritually grounded woman, took revenge against me with the bishop in secretly agenting a private letter of complaint against me.
There is also the story of a feminist Toronto priest in whose employ I served as an honorary assistant, pinch-hitting for her while she attended the UN Womens’ Conference in Bejing. Immediately following the election of the Mike Harris government, we all learned of the government’s significant reduction or cancellation of funding of the Wheel-Trans service in Toronto, a needed service for all physical and intellectually challenged seeking work and health care. I challenged the government’s decision in a homily and learned later, after the cleric returned, parishioners reported to her, “We can’t have him criticizing the premier we have just elected!” The cleric held a secret kangaroo court of some fourteen church members, and asked them to vote on my retention. Although the vote went 9 in favour, 4 opposed with 1 abstention, I was nevertheless relieved of my duties, I later learned, partly because one parishioner told the clergy unknown to me, “He’s a leader and you’re not!” When I confronted the bishop about the failure to assign me to former parish duties, informing him of my considered view, “You know she hates men!” I heard these words in reply, “I have never seen that from her.” This is the same clergy who deployed the Myers-Briggs test on the congregation, and then designed her homilies to comport with the dominant “sensate” demographic sitting in the pews.
Perhaps an apprenticeship in journalism covering municipal politics for more than a dozen years in a city caught up in the drama of local political manoeuvres and personalities, from which platform I openly criticized both decisions and the processes whereby those decisions were taken does not prepare one for a quixotic journey into ministry. I once assessed that the political deal-making, back-stabbing and betrayals of the council paled in comparison with the back-stabbing, gossiping betrayals that, like tornado winds sweep over every church in which I served. The only difference, from this observer’s perspective, is that inside the church, such toxicity is literally never challenged, while in the backrooms of politics, it frequently, if not always, is.
Making nice, as Canadians are globally reputed to have inscribed in our DNA, is nothing more than a cultural mask, covering more than a century of overt, passionate, denial-based policy and language of racism, and the hypocrisy that sustains such racism. Land claims unresolved, boil-water orders, defective educational opportunity, social unrest linked to spiking suicide rates among the young and the dearth of health and social services all give evidence of a gestalt of what can only be called apartheid of the north. Deeply implicated in this national shame are the Christian churches, through their exaggerated defining of native customs as heretical, and in serious need of conversion, not to mention the piles of evidence of sexual abuse, reparations for which continue to spawn public debate.
Accepting denial, whether inside the churches, the House of Commons, the corporate board rooms, in academe, or on the playing field of both amateur and professional athletics, has been, is and will continue for too long, to represent a significant layer of the masculine consciousness needing unpacking, confronting, remediating and transforming the lives of individuals, families, and nations. Additionally, the shared spectre of an existential threat from rising temperatures, rising ocean levels, parched growing fields, starvation and tidal waves of refugees can no longer be denied by any of the many players needed to address the threat.
If men are unwilling and unable to confront the denials in our own lives, and in the exercise of our own professional and career theatres, there is little hope that denial will be etherized upon the table of the spiritual, ethical, moral and corporate pathologist’s table. Following that etherizing, denial then needs to be submitted to the crematorium reserved for the many life-defying and bogus myths that infect our masculine consciousness, with the impunity of denial itself.