Tag Archives: learning

Denial

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 that the subject of denial is much bigger than I first supposed, and one little blog post cannot do justice to its history and scope.

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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 that 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.

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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.

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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 the changes happening.

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.

My daily crime.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

As an oral storyteller, I’m committed to gathering old tales from all over the world and retelling them because they contain blueprints for life. Each story is a teacher, a small piece of code, a seed, a fragment of wisdom, a snippet of DNA. Stories speak to us about who we are, who we have been and who we might yet be. They speak in the voices of place, people, history and culture.

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Story does not exist without storytellers. Literacy is not necessary, as long as people remain connected enough to pass story on orally. A culture which unravels and frays in its ability to form healthy connections and bonds and at the same time stifles the acquisition and sharing of knowledge is in grave danger of losing stories, and when old stories are lost much of the collective wisdom of our ancestors is lost with them. We become crippled and impoverished. We lose our way in the world and we have to spend time and energy reinventing wheels we learned how to make hundreds of years ago.

As a storyteller, then, I come to you this fine spring week when the snow is ebbing in Maine, leaving behind rich, greasy mud, with the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Every old story is in fact many stories. A piece of oral tradition is like a many-limbed tree. As it grows and matures it branches out over and over. Every teller who passes on the tale adds or takes away a piece of it, reshaping it according to the teller’s context in history and place. Still, the skeleton of the story remains recognizable, because the bones contain the wisdom, the old truth, the regenerative pieces that are reanimated over and over by those of us who share them.

The essential truth contained in the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is evident to any investigator, because it has appeared in so many times and places. According to my research, the first time it appeared was in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, as a warning against false prophets. The sermon goes on to suggest that actions speak louder than words. Thereafter, the phrase was repeated in other Christian religious writing and from there entered into European vernacular. A Latin proverb arose: “Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind.”

A 12th century Greek wrote a fable about a wolf who changed his appearance in order to get access to ample food. He put on a sheepskin and mingled with a flock of sheep, fooling the shepherd. The disguised wolf was shut up with the sheep for the night. The shepherd decided he wanted mutton for his supper, so he took his knife and killed the deceitful wolf, mistaking it for a sheep. Here is a branch in the story tree. The Gospel reference warns against deceitful teachers. The Greek fable warns that evil-doing carries a penalty. The bones of the story — the consequences of a wolf disguising itself as a sheep — are the same. The story is now two-dimensional. Such a pretence is dangerous for both wolf and sheep.

Another iteration occurs three centuries later in the writing of a 15th century Italian professor. A wolf dresses himself in a sheepskin and every day kills one of the flock. The shepherd catches on and hangs the wolf, still wearing the sheepskin, from a tree. When the other shepherds ask why he hung a sheep in a tree, the shepherd replies that the skin was of a sheep, but the actions were of a wolf. There it is again: Actions speak louder than words.

Aesop wrote two fables having to do with wolves gaining the trust of a shepherd and killing sheep, but the wolf is undisguised in these cases. Even so, the common theme is clear. A wolf is a wolf, and cannot be trusted with the sheep.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Italian, French and English writers adopted versions similar to the early 15th century Italian tale, in which the wolf pretends he is not a threat to the sheep.

Most of us know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, whose origins can be traced back to 10th century European folk and fairy tales. In the familiar modern version, a wolf disguises itself as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the innocent too-sweet maiden is fooled and subsequently eaten.

My favorite story of wolves and, in this case, goats, comes from my own childhood, the tale of the wolf and the seven kids (young goats). The mother goat must leave the house and warns her seven children about the wily wolf who might try to gobble them up. She says they will recognize her by her sweet voice and white feet, and they mustn’t open the door to anyone else. I was mightily amused by the wolf’s machinations in trying to fool the kids: Swallowing honey to make his rough voice sweet, whitening his black feet with flour. Of course, he does fool the kids and they are eaten, but, much like Little Red Riding Hood, the kids are saved from the wolf’s stomach in the end.

As an adult, this tale doesn’t seem nearly so amusing.

Lastly, modern zoology makes use of the term “aggressive mimicry,” which describes a method of deception by an animal so it appears to either predator or prey as something else.

I’m deeply troubled by what I see going on around me in the world. It appears as though many millions of people are no longer able to discern the difference between wolves and sheep, and this is creating dire consequences for all life on Planet Earth.

How did this happen? Why did this happen? When did this happen? How are we producing college graduates who don’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing? What kind of a so-called educational system, public or private, produces such myopia? For two thousand years we’ve understood the dangers of failing to clearly see the difference between sheep and wolves. Such a failure of judgement is bad for the wolves as well as the sheep. Tracing this old tale through time (when most of the world’s population was largely illiterate and uneducated), clearly shows us this is a learned skill. Little Red Riding Hood, the seven kids and several confused shepherds, all innocent, naive and inexperienced, had to learn to recognize a wolf when they saw one, or starve or be eaten. Critical thinking is not an innate skill. Parents, teachers and leaders must actively teach it.

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Here is a wolf. It’s an apex predator; intelligent, flexible and canny. The wolf is evolved to survive and pass on its DNA. It’s not confused about what it eats or the meaning of its life. Its job is to do whatever is necessary to survive and successfully reproduce. As a predator, wolves are an essential part of the complex system we call life. A healthy population of wolves benefits both the land and prey animals.

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Here is a sheep. It’s an herbivore, a prey animal. It’s evolved to produce milk, meat and wool, survive and pass on its DNA. It eats grass. It too is an essential part of the web of predator (including humans), prey and plants. Its presence, properly managed, benefits the land and predators.

One can certainly throw a wolfskin over a sheep and say it’s a wolf, but that doesn’t make it so. Now we have a sheep in the throes of a nervous breakdown, but the animal is still a sheep. It still needs to eat grass. We cannot change a sheep into a wolf.

Likewise, a wolf wearing a sheepskin does not begin to crop grass. Wolves eat meat, no matter what kind of a skin they’re wearing. A simple shepherd might be fooled by a single glance in the dusk if the disguised wolf mills among the sheep, but five minutes of observation will quickly reveal the truth. Sheep do not tear out one another’s throats. A wolf cannot be changed into a sheep.

The wolves of the world, those who prey on others, naturally have a large inventory of successful speeches and manipulations. They study their prey and learn quickly how to take advantage of it. They are everywhere, in politics, religious organizations, schools and cults. They’re athletic coaches and businessmen, people of influence and power. They disguise themselves and mingle freely with their prey and pick them off, one by one.

In the natural world, an overpopulation of wolves eventually runs out of prey animals. At that point, the wolf population goes down dramatically while prey animal populations recover. Nature seeks a balance of life, and if we create endless flocks of fat, stupid, blindfolded sheep, the grass will run out, wolves will increase, and slaughter will commence as the sheep begin to starve for want of food.

That’s a lot of destroyed land, dead sheep, fat and happy wolves and then, in the next generation, a lot of young wolves starving to death and, (one hopes) a few smarter and wiser sheep and shepherds.

People say we’re a superior species to wolves and sheep. I don’t see much evidence of that recently. We can’t seem to remember what we once knew well. We teach our children how to press buttons and look at a screen and pass a standardized state test, but they can’t tell a wolf from a sheep, and neither can we. The wolves are not confused, but the sheep are milling around aimlessly like … well, like sheep, ripe and ready for slaughter. We’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing our true nature is expressed by appearance, words and socioeconomics. Actions don’t count, and neither does DNA. Off we skip to the slaughterhouse, following honey-tongued wolves dusted with flour, who praise us for our compassion, compliance, inclusivity and political correctness while they drool at the prospect of all that food. Meanwhile, our planet degrades so that no one else is properly fed and natural checks and balances are destroyed. Even the noncompliant, troublemaking sheep who manage to escape slaughter will starve. So will the wolves, eventually, after they’ve devoured everyone else.

Maybe then the complex system of life can begin to heal. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll be separating the wolves from the sheep and telling stories.

My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Discovering Character

Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a person in a novel, play or movie.

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I’m fascinated with the places between. All the places between. Threshold places. Edge-of-chaos places. Here-there-be-dragons places off the edges of maps. It’s in the gaps, fissures, cracks and edges that I mine for the characters that inhabit my writing. It’s in the between places my own character is shaped, and I gain the clearest understanding of the characters around me.

I’ve written about labels before. Discovering characters is not about labels. Labels aren’t people. We’ve had a lot of reminders recently that talent, success, money and power fail to fully define character. Ours is a culture of texts and tweets, acronyms and jargon like “neoliberal” and “postmodernism.” We’ve become skilled at reducing ourselves and others to one-dimensional paper dolls with the application of a label. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of culture. We’ve no time or interest to invest in understanding complexity.

But what lies between the enormously talented actor and his serial sexually abusive behavior? What is the untold story of the “perfect” mother who drives into a lake with her kids in an act of murder and self-destruction? How do we think about the extraordinarily gifted writer who is also homophobic, or a child abuser? Who are we in the gap between what we believe ourselves to be, what we define ourselves to be, what we want ourselves to be, what we’re afraid we are, and how we actually show up in the world in the experience of others?

In that space between lies real character. That’s where I’m at work, listening, taking notes, asking questions and observing. As a writer, I must know my characters. What are they afraid of? What’s their worst memory? What’s their ideal vacation? What motivates them? What does their sock drawer look like? What’s in their car? What’s on their desk? How do they treat a service person? How many unopened emails squat in their inbox? Where do they want to be in five years? In ten years?

Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic, choice or ideology doesn’t build connection, understanding or empathy. We can spend hours online, commenting, facebooking, blogging and interacting with others about every issue from sexual politics to diet, but none of it defines our character as honestly as how we treat a real live co-worker who identifies as transgender, or what kind of food we actually have in our refrigerator.

Those tantalizing, fertile, often concealed places between! Interestingly, words obscure the places between. Words are capable of seductive lies, but action, especially action taken in the stress of an unexpected moment, points unfailingly to true character.

Another problem with labels is their inflexibility. We each perform hundreds and hundreds of actions a day, and some are notable for how well they don’t work out. Labels imply that we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t adapt and adjust and learn, when in fact the opposite is true.

The Johari Window is a concept created by a couple of psychologists in the 1950s to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The window suggests that we cannot see ourselves or others entirely, and there is always a space of possibility to discover. Fully defining character becomes a community project. Even so, the unknown or hidden parts of character can and do appear suddenly and overwhelmingly, often resulting in some kind of heinous act and leaving us struggling with what we missed, what we didn’t know or what we didn’t want to admit.

It’s so fatally easy to misunderstand and underestimate others, especially when we can’t observe, talk and interact face-to-face with someone and compare their actions with their words over the long term. Complexity takes time. Making judgements based on labels does not.

As a writer, I’ve learned to look at myself and others with a more interested and less judgemental eye. I’ve learned to set up camp in the places between, look and listen carefully, observe keenly and ask a lot of questions. I’ve concluded that people who toss labels around are often in too much of a hurry to achieve power over others and silence challenge or dissent to engage in thoughtful dialog or discussion. Label users reveal far more about themselves than whoever they’re labeling. It’s a diversionary tactic.

Who is that character hiding behind all the labels they’re slinging left, right and center? What’s really going on with them? What kind of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, pain or lust for power motivates them? Who taught them to use labels so carelessly and unhelpfully? What needs are they trying to meet?

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An engaging character is one who defies labels, one who challenges preconceptions, one we empathize with and even care about in spite of the abhorrent choices they make. A well-written character is complex and dynamic.

This week is one of those between places. We’re swinging between Christmas and the New Year, between 2017 and 2018. The holiday season has stirred up our memories, our family situations, our nostalgia, grief, gratitude, financial fears and resentments. We’ve traveled, abandoned our usual diet and routines, gotten worn out and indulged in sugar and alcohol. The flu is abroad. The package was stolen off the porch. The dog bit Santa when he came down the chimney.

Here, my friends, is the between place of authentic character. Not who we wish to be. Not who we say we are. Not who we present ourselves as on Facebook or pretend to be for our families and coworkers or resolve to become in the New Year, but who we are today, with our blind spots, our secrets, our fears, our greasy oven, our favorite coffee cup, indigestion, bills to pay, snow to shovel, our comfy sagging chair and what we choose to do with this in-between time.

Powerful characters. May we create them. May we discover, foster and celebrate them in others. May we honor our own.

Our daily crime.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted