The tax return form sat in my Dad’s in-tray month after month, ignored, though the deadline loomed.
My mother tried to remind him about it gently, and was brushed off with ‘It’s OK. I’ll do it’.
But he didn’t.
And she began to wonder if he didn’t because he couldn’t.
He already had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, but she had begun to wonder whether the unthinkable was happening, and he was also losing his mind. Her husband, who had won so many prizes as a student at Cambridge, whose academic brilliance had had him lecturing all over the world, was unable to admit that he could no longer understand what to do with a tax form.
She suggested he might like to pass the job on to an accountant, but then the war-time habit of thrift kicked in. He wouldn’t pay someone to do something he could do himself.
So the form sat there, and the deadline came and went, and they were fined.
Avoiding reality in a hospice
I saw it so many times when I worked in a hospice.
- Some people could not admit that they were going to die from their cancer despite the fact they had just been admitted to a hospice. This meant they didn’t do things that would help their grieving relatives like writing a will
- Some people swore blind that they had not been told their cancer was terminal, though the hospital notes recorded clearly that they had been. They just hadn’t been able to hear it. Their sense of aggrievement meant they didn’t trust the medical staff that they were relying on for further treatment.
- Some people insisted they were ready to return to living alone, despite the fact they could no longer reach the toilet unaided. This left their relatives unable to arrange the care they needed.
Avoiding reality in America
Denial is big news at the moment on our TV screens. We in the UK have gasped at the extent of it in America. President Trump and his supporters have taken their refusal to face reality to extraordinary lengths.
Trump’s denial that he lost the election put others’ lives at risk. For weeks, he denied the Biden team access to information about the upcoming Covid vaccination programme. How long, we ask? How long can this destructive charade go on?
Struggling to adapt
We all have struggled with the reality of this epidemic at some point. I remember in March feeling as if my brain was like treacle as I struggled to take on the implications of the first lockdown. I realized those around me were struggling with that as much, and sometimes more, than I was.
I was at an advantage, being married to a doctor. My husband and I, with a knowledge of infectious diseases, had bought in extras for our store cupboards in early February. We could see some of what was coming.
But in mid-March, when the outline of the first lockdown was announced, my non-medical colleagues were taken by surprise. They didn’t believe me that we wouldn’t be able to have a normal service the next Sunday. To start with, they couldn’t see that from a public health viewpoint, meeting in church would be as risky as meeting in a pub, and would therefore be banned. Denial was protecting them big time.
We’d met with several thousand other church leaders for a conference the week before. The national news was clear that the virus was coming towards us in the UK: it had moved from China and was causing chaos in Italy. Surely this was a moment to pray to God for help? If asked, all those at the conference would have said they believed in the power of prayer to change things. But just one minute was spent praying about the virus at that three-day conference. Clearly most people were blocking out reality.
TS Eliot was right in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’ when he said :
Even Jesus couldn’t bypass denial
I often wonder whether Jesus’s parable of the sower in Matthew 13 was not a moral story meaning ‘be good soil’ but simply a description of how he found things to be. He described how so many of the seeds sown by a farmer never grow into full-grown plants. I suggest this metaphor represented his disappointment and frustration at how few people were taking on board what he taught. Their denial of their true situation meant they were simply unable to hear it. Maybe that’s why he kept saying plaintively, ‘Whoever has ears, let him hear’.
Sometimes Christians use their faith as a cover-up for denial.
- ‘I’m going to thank God in all circumstances’ is popular. But it can be used as an acceptable substitute for ‘I’m not going to admit, even to myself, that my wife leaving me makes me feel a failure’.
- A dying person saying seraphically ‘I’m believing I will be healed’ can prevent their family from being able to say goodbye to them.
- Valiantly saying we’re ‘standing in faith that the virus will not enter our church building’ could mean we don’t protect worshippers as we should.
How can we be more real?
So how do we get past it? How do we get past denial to face reality and avoid making life impossible for those around us?
How can we get past our blind spots, when, by definition, we can’t see that they are there?
I’ll continue the discussion next week, but meanwhile: what do you think? Do let me know by commenting!