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Being in Denial

Being in Denial by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

In this column, I would like to explore the concept of actively fooling oneself, otherwise known as “being in denial.”

Saying that someone is “living in denial” is really a value judgement; it refers to the notion that a person is avoiding or negating reality. It is part of the human condition to reframe reality and it is done for a variety of reasons. It may relate to a personal loss, life threatening illness, harmful or painful relationships, or health threats like obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure.

People also have a tendency to reframe reality when it comes to the environment around them. This includes the political, ideological, and physical environments. The debate over climate change is a classic example of something that encompasses all three elements. Another very relevant example of this in today’s world is the anti-vaxxer campaign.

To be sure, there are some very valid reasons for not vaccinating, but the outright denial of the science of vaccinations (and ignoring the advice from 99% of the medical establishment) is not one of them. This is very hard for some people to accept because, in their delusional reality, they know “better” than the experts and most everyone else. They generally deny this reality by attributing the medical establishment’s advice to some far-fetched conspiracy theories and/or by quoting some fringe quacks who advise against vaccinations. This is a classic example of “living in denial” or perhaps better yet – “dying in denial.”

Denial is primarily used as a coping mechanism and is frequently referred to as the first step in the five stages of grief. (My personal version of the stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, Saturday, Sunday.)

But what does “being in denial” really mean? In my opinion, denial is generally used to reject realities for which we don’t want to accept responsibility and take action – to stop smoking, lose weight, or terminate a toxic relationship. In essence, denial is how people handle things that they don’t want to handle.

Let’s face it, taking real responsibility is one of the most difficult things a person has to undertake. People who truly take responsibility for themselves and their actions are hard to find. People who willingly accept responsibility for others are even harder to find – but they are our true leaders.

We also use denial as a shield to protect ourselves emotionally and cope with our feelings or – more importantly – with what we don’t want to feel. We may want to deny the reality of our situation because accepting a reality that is uncomfortable, painful, or incongruous with the reality in which we want to live also means we must alter our perception of ourselves.

However, when we contradict reality or attempt to adjust to a circumstance by rejecting its effect we are also ignoring the responsibility to take certain actions that the situation requires, and that can be very dangerous.

In this week’s Torah portion we find a terrific lesson regarding personal denial contained within the Torah mandated obligation of returning a lost object to its owner:

You shall not see the ox of your brother or his lamb go astray, and hide yourself from them, you shall surely return them to your brother [...] so you shall do for any lost article of your brother that you have found, you cannot hide yourself. You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the road whilst you hide from them, you shall surely raise it with him (Deuteronomy 22:1, 3, 4).

These verses discuss the laws relating to the obligation of returning lost objects and helping with animals that are struggling under a heavy burden. Clearly, the Torah is teaching us how much care and concern we must have not only for our brethren, but for their property as well.

Yet the Torah communicates these laws to us in an unusual manner; in both the case of returning a lost object and helping a struggling animal, the Torah states that you shall not hide from this obligation. The famous medieval Biblical commentator known as Rashi (ad loc) explains that this “hiding” mentioned in the verses refers to “concealing the eye, as if he doesn’t see it.” In other words, we deny the reality of it.

This has deep ramifications. Not only is there an obligation to help a brother in need, but there is also a prohibition against ignoring his lost object or the fact that his animal is struggling under a heavy burden.

Still, instead of focusing on the requirement of the situation, the Torah focuses on one’s act of “hiding” and pretending not to see the situation. Surely, the Torah could have simply said, “You cannot ignore the needs of your friend.” Why does the Torah teach us this prohibition in such a poetic manner as “you cannot hide yourself”?

The Talmud (Yevamos 79a) quotes King David as saying that the Jewish people have three distinguishing character traits: They are 1) compassionate, 2) bashful, and 3) do random acts of kindness.

The Talmud continues, “Rava says that anyone who has all three identifying marks can be positively identified as descendants of Abraham.” That is to say, these character traits are part of the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people. (Much like there is a physical DNA that is passed down in the genes from parent to child, there is also an aspect of spiritual DNA that is inherited. Perhaps we will discuss this concept further in another column.)

There is an enormous lesson here. We have such an instinct for compassion and kindness that the only way we could ignore the plight of our brethren is by pretending not to see it. We have to lie to ourselves about seeing the situation (“living in denial”) in order to cope with the guilt of not taking an action to resolve the situation. Denial becomes a coping mechanism and the Torah is telling us that it’s simply not acceptable.

For this reason, the Torah phrases the prohibition as “you shall not hide.” The Torah is obligating us to be true to ourselves and not construct a false sense of reality, even though it may be easier and more convenient.

This message is relevant in all aspects of our lives, whether it be professional or personal.

In a few weeks we embark on our yearly period of self-reflection by taking a personal audit of our behavior over the previous year. This period of self-reflection is part of the preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the process of teshuva – returning to the ways of the Almighty. Understanding the realities that we choose to deny is the beginning of this process.

After all, the first step in effecting positive change within ourselves is to identify behaviors that need improvement. The Torah is teaching us that we must stop deluding ourselves (“you shall not hide”) in order to justify what we want to do (ignoring someone else’s misfortune).

The reason this is so important is because all healthy relationships are built on honesty. The antidote for the toxicity in our relationships with ourselves and with others begins with being honest with ourselves. Only once we achieve this can we truly have an honest relationship with others (and the Almighty).

There are several ways to begin this process, but perhaps the most important step is to recognize that you may not be seeing a situation for what it truly is. You need to open up to people who you trust and who love you enough to be honest with you. After all, there is a significant responsibility that comes with giving someone constructive criticism. But a true friend – someone who loves you for who you are, and is devoid of any self-interest – can be most helpful.

Once you have achieved a new perspective you must formulate a plan of action to resolve the issues that you now understand. Generally, this includes resolving to end any and all harmful behavior and committing to behaving differently in the future. Not coincidentally, these are all components of the process known as teshuva. In this way we are not only returning to the ways of the Almighty but also to our true selves.


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