Thursday, March 11, 2021

Grappling with personal denial in a culture of avoidance

 Complex personal behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and especially perceptions are extremely difficult to untangle, as are the manifold implications of the many intersections with a group, family, organization, political party, church, or even region and culture. Observing one’s actions, words, beliefs and attitudes, too, adds another layer of complexity to what is already an apparent infinite number of factors in any given moment.

What each person “sees” and considers important, at any given moment, is coloured, from his/her perspective, by the mood, the history, the ambience, the cognition and the multiple impulses that comprise a character or personality. And from the ‘group’ perspective, there are the distinguishing traits like structure, ethos, culture, leadership, belief system, values and current curation of relevant size, trend lines, history and future probabilities.

Whether one’s gaze is on a single individual, or a specific group, or on a specific set of circumstances, a case, a legislative bill, a legal system, an educational system, there is also the tension between significant individual parts/components and the whole. And while humans have a capacity to make such discernments, we often fall into the trap of equating a highlighted “part” as the “whole” of the person, or the case. In language, this is dubbed an elision, when, for example, two sounds merge into a single sound. The language of practical sense, ordinary street-speak, is predominantly an expression of what has been noted, observed, with the occasional deduction or induction, in order to sum up a set of observations. Such street-speak, however, customarily pays little to no attention to those aspects of the person, the organization, the negative, hidden, denied, avoided or repressed aspects of either the person or the subject, whatever that might be.

We are swimming in oceans of objective data, themselves increasingly starving for their own oxygen, both literally and metaphorically, as we continue to dump dead things into that space. Some of the dead things, on the literal level, include discarded plastics, drugs, and a wide range of things for which we no longer have use. In the ocean of public discourse, too, we are dumping many of the very defense mechanisms that individual humans deploy in order to cope with strong, difficult, and perhaps even intolerable feelings. There is a reasonable case to be made for the notion that we, both individually and collectively, spend a good deal of our time over the decades coming to terms (and the meaning of that phrase differs for each person) with events, incidents, memories, traumas and tragedies that previously were psychically insurmountable, or so we thought and believed.

Rightly or not, much of this space has been, and will continue to untangle the unmistakable and intricate interaction between what the culture is talking about and what the individual is facing, in the conviction that these two ‘independent variables’ are not indeed, “independent” but rather mutually inter-dependent. Who we are, as individuals, is necessarily a part of ‘all that we have met’…we are reminded of this intimacy by Tennyson’s poem Ulysses:

I am a part of all that I have met

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades

Forever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make and end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

And yet, for many, their experience is not ‘seen’ as a strong arch, added to in strength and durability with the encounter of each new moment. For many, experience is more like a never-ending storm, perhaps even a hurricane, a tornado, an earth-quake, that seems to have slammed a door to the field of hopes and dreams. And in the lives of many of those people, only a metaphoric re-birth, a resurrection, a transformation, a new person, or a new challenge offers the possibility that their cloud morphs into an “arch” or even a telescope that can see sun and blue sky on a horizon previously laden in darkness. The story of the life of Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, exhibits much of this narrative, shared by so many whose families are survivors of the Holocaust. His parents were Sephardic (originating from the Iberian Peninsula, modern Spain and Portugal) Jews living in Thessolonika. Bourla told MSNBC’s Morning Joe, today, that his mother used to say, over and over again to him, “Life is good, sure we have suffered, but, look I have you and life is good!” He credits her influence on him as helping him to the place where he is convicted of the notion that none of us knows what we are capable of, unless and until we let go of those limits we have accepted on our potential, both individually and collectively. Thinking outside, the box, inside Pfizer, for example, in pursuit of the COVID-19 vaccine meant two things: at least four levels of management were in the room at all times when decisions were being made, so the structural bureaucracy could not and would not impede progress, and refusal to accept government funds meant that the Pfizer scientists would be uninfluenced or impeded by government demands, another ‘outside-the-box” feature of the speed and the success of the vaccine development story. Both Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and the Bourla bio focus on the heroic person; however, similar and parallel stories are accessible regardless of the level of education, achievement, wealth or ethnic factors in lives everywhere.

The question, here, is how to begin the process of what might be an impossible puzzle to solve: how for the purveyors of street-talk, for example, to begin to include those influential background impulses that continue to energize the moment, in the life of the individual, as well as in the life of the family, the organization and the community. How, for example, does a town whose history is intimately linked to a series of generations of blue-collar, mining or industrial enterprises, in which workplace injuries, stress and long-term health conditions continue to walk on those streets in complete silence? Or, for example, how does a community whose experiences include significant exposure to betrayal, in both the physical and the inevitably emotional areas of life, engage in a collective process of grief, share the pain by remembering its poignant scars, and begin to glimpse the ‘light’ of new awareness, new ways of ‘seeing’ not only the betrayal but the potential (and usually undocumented and thereby ignored) pain of the perpetrator(s) of the betrayal? How does a family who lost a loved one from lung cancer, for example, begin to exercise the anger, the rage even, at those tobacco companies whose advertising totally denied any responsibility for that disease as a result of their cigarettes? How do those hundreds of thousands of families whose loved ones perished from COVID-19, in substantial part because a president of the United States was negligent in carrying out his duties of his office: not merely the legal duties to uphold the constitution, but especially the moral and ethical duties and responsibilities as a human being? How does a family of a loyal worker, dependent on the income of that worker for survivor, for example, deal with not only the loss of income, and the hope and security that came with that income, but also the loss of dignity, community respect, and potential alienation not only of the “redundant” worker but the school community of his/her children, the neighbours, the social circle, and the prospect of trying to secure additional work? The individuals who suffer at the ‘hands’ of the mega-corporations (for-profit as well as not-for-profit), even if and when they made errors in judgement, nevertheless, too often have been reduced to those errors, without a passing glance to the whole person, or the responsibilities of the employer in deploying that individual in untenable circumstances?  

We are becoming, or perhaps already have become, a culture in which microscopic attention to the “part” or the incident, or the event, or the error in judgement, too often has been substituted for a full analysis of the situation, as if we, collectively are prepared to comply with the determinants of how our society works as established and imposed by those with excessive power, excessive neurosis that demands their first priority is their own nest. It is not merely the demise of the labour movement that we decry; it is also the demise of corporate and governmental and organizational responsibility for their part in the multiple crises we face as human beings. Denial of climate change and global warming, just like the denial of cigarettes as the primary cause of lung cancer, as well as secondary smoke-induced caners, continues to face the world’s people and their governments, their corporations, their universities and their hospitals. Denial of a process either of appeal or of conflict resolution is the “power-down” answer to those details they have come to regard as outside their sphere of influence, read, responsibility.

It is not only trump who has exhibited and championed this kind of colonial attitude and behaviour, accompanied with and sustained by a convention of social compliance in which the schools, the universities, the churches and the social service agencies are both implicated and have to confront. We put far too many people in prison, for reasons of social and cultural denial, avoidance and other defense mechanisms too infrequently acknowledged.

For example, as polite, ‘fitting-in’ individuals, seeking to avoid conflict and the pain it inflicts on all participants, we silently ‘go-along-to-get-along’…and thereby permit the abuse of power while sabotaging ourselves and perpetuating the abuse of power on others. Another of the ways by which we deflect strong feelings of anger and anxiety is to displace those feelings onto others whom we find to be non-threatening. Such deflection (displacement) inflicts unjust anger on an unsuspecting innocent, too frequently one attempting to incarnate and promote both peace and collaboration. So, in the process of displacement, we have “avoided” how we really feel, while victimizing an innocent who is trying to live a peaceful life of contribution. Some of us regress backwards, when faced with strong and uncontainable emotions, and others rationalize the situation, thereby pouring a veneer of denial over both our eyes/ears and the situation itself, again permitting the ‘causative’ incident and person to continue unimpeded, and unchallenged…both effectively becoming victims. For many men, especially, sublimation, the redirecting of strong unsustainable feelings into an object of an activity is another path denoting a defense mechanism, a version of avoidance and denial, an escape from the full acknowledgement of the legitimate feelings, as well as an avoidance of attempting a new pathway to confront, without engaging in the same or similar behaviour as that which precipitated those feelings in the first place. For those who are, or who see themselves as accomplished ‘actors,’ another defence mechanism that might appeal, in order to defend against unwanted and intolerable strong and deep and justified feelings, is termed reaction formation, whereby an individual behaves in precisely the opposite manner to those strong negative emotions, so that no one will really ‘know’ and/or catch on to the truth of the situation that has taken place.

There are other ways to explore the concept of denial. One really insidious type in the denial of denial, whereby an individual simply denies s/he is in denial. And then there is the denial of a cycle, in which a pattern of power-down abuse has created a pattern or a cycle, which has become so familiar that it has taken on a life of its own, supported, aided and abetted by the denier. And, as mentioned previously, a denial of responsibility is the one cited about the former U.S. president, along with multiple corporations, and philanthropists whose political agenda is dedicated to the proposition that the pursuit of profit reduces the societal goal of clean air, water and land to an irritant, and worse, a potentially lethal prosecutor of ‘my’ personal and corporate and philanthropic goals and objectives, so that the zero-sum game becomes the driving force for his/her actions, beliefs, perceptions and values.’

Underlying all of the various defense mechanisms that individuals deploy, however, is a culture reared and nurtured in dominant professions like the law and medicine. In the legal definition of evidence, four types are listed: real, demonstrative, documentary and testimonial. In the medical field, a symptom is presented often in a complaint, while a signal is noted in a sensation. A subjective expression, too, qualifies as a kind of symptom. The scientific laboratory, too, is fully engaged in, and committed to the pursuit of evidence that either supports or refutes a theory, or an experiment based, itself, on a theory. So, in street-talk, as well as in self-talk, we all engage in a form of imitation of one or other of the many paths by which we attempt to cope, and even to confront whatever it is that might be ‘bothering’ us. And in a culture seemingly ‘drugged’ with defense mechanisms, it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for many to break through the veil of denial, avoidance and psychic ‘paving’ that we have all consciously or unconsciously laid down on our own path, and on the paths of our children and grandchildren.

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