When I was first diagnosed with MS, over twenty years ago, I was told repeatedly that I was in denial. This would have been because I chose to ignore it and to carry on – as far as possible – as if it was “business as usual.” I think a part of me was in - what is commonly understood as – denial. But, even now - when there’s no doubt that I suffer with MS, because my lifestyle has been radically altered - I prefer to live my life pretending that I haven’t got it.
I’ve always maintained that I happen to have MS, but that I’m not defined by it. I took the view, right from the start, that I was going to focus on what I could do with it and not on what I couldn’t do. Indeed, as David Whyte says, in his book, Consolations, denial can be a mercy, because it can cradle and hold “an identity until it is ready to move on.”
So there are times when choosing to deny something is a very positive thing to do. Indeed, because I chose to deny that it was the last day of my holiday on Friday (and to block all negative thoughts) I squeezed the last possible drop from the tube. In fact it wasn’t until I set my alarm to be up very early on Saturday morning, in order that I pack at the last possible moment, that I admitted to myself that it was over, for certain.
But I am left wondering about Whyte’s notion that denial “fully experienced, also enables us to understand the full measure of our reluctance thus becoming a way of both paying attention to and appreciating what is asking to be seen.” I take it that he is referring to the states of mind I have outlined above, because there are many people who are in denial but are not aware that they are blocking out reality.
I am thinking, in particular, of Mary, who gave every impression that she had no idea she was dying – and if she suspected she was I would counter that she was repudiating the obvious. Would she have considered denial a “beautiful transitional state”? I imagine it could be seen in that light – in retrospect – and certainly there are things it is better that we do refuse to engage in, but isn’t engagement Whyte’s point, here? For, usually, when we deny something we are, in a sense, rejecting it. And if we are denied something we are unable to proceed – it is rejecting us.
Had Mary meditated upon her impending death would she have been better able to make the transition? I believe that denial, for her, was a prison, such that when the moment came for her to die – as it had to – she was terrified. If only denial had prepared her to take the next step with courage.
Denial came to a natural end when Mary breathed her last. But, as her death was slow and painless surely it would have been easier (for her, as well as for us) had she paid attention to what beckoned and readied herself for the inevitable casting off of a final skin. She gave the impression that preferred to refuse to face what she considered she was not yet ripe for, because she wanted to live in the present – to squeeze out every last drop. Her privilege, of course (!)
The process of denial can be, as Whyte says, “the crossroads between perception and readiness;” in which case it is indeed a “necessary dynamic so that the overpowering elements of a waiting terrifying universe can be held for now, over the horizon”. Until then we are called to be here now, “breathing the air of the present.”