Denial Makes the World Go Round

Everyone steeped in the culture of self-help and recovery knows that denial is not “a river in Egypt,” but a destructive means of keeping our addictions in place. However, a recent article in the New York Times presents a more benign view: While too much denial can be destructive, some degree of denial is essential to maintaining friendly human relationships. Is denial, then, a good or a bad thing? A Course in Miracles would agree that denial holds together human relationships as we know them, but in its view this is not a good thing, for human relationships as we know them are not as friendly as we think. Their real nature is obscured by layers of denial far more pervasive and destructive than we suspect, layers that keep us in misery. Fortunately, we can peel away these layers of denial, and when we do, we can discover the joy of truly loving relationships.

The Times article, Denial Makes the World Go Round by Benedict Carey, describes scientific research on human denial, the act of overlooking things we’d rather not see — especially the faults and misbehaviors of ourselves and those whom we want to trust. This research shows, in the words of University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough, that “denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures.” This denial takes a variety of forms, from mild to extreme. On the most basic level there is simple inattention, where some sort of minor misbehavior takes place but we let it slip under the radar by not paying attention to it. If misbehavior is repeated too frequently to ignore, however, we may move to what Carey calls “passive acknowledgment,” in which we recognize the infraction but rather than directly confronting it — which might force us to deal with things we’d rather avoid — we basically wink at it and let it slide (with the implied message that it should not be repeated again).

Another level, common among spouses and partners, is what Carey calls “reframing.” In reframing, we use “a blend of denial and touch-up work” to create an idealized picture of our allies and loved ones. For instance, we might recast their unreliability as “spontaneity” and their anger as “righteous indignation.” This reframing can also take the form of recasting clear ethical violations as simply incompetence — “mistakes were made” — a maneuver we’re all too familiar with in the political realm. Of course, in its most extreme form, denial can move beyond reframing into profound self-deception: the affair that is swept under the rug, the elephant in the living room that is never acknowledged, the skeleton locked securely in its closet.

As I’ve mentioned, the conclusion of most scientific researchers is that while denial is certainly a bad thing if it reaches extreme levels, it is often a good thing: “The ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships.” It is even, in this view, the basis for forgiveness, since forgiveness is a kind of denial: a decision to overlook another person’s wrongdoing, even though justice would demand some sort of punishment for that wrongdoing. Without such overlooking, the theory says, human relationships would degenerate into a never-ending cycle of revenge and retribution. Denial, then, is an essential glue that keeps human society from falling apart. In the words of Carey’s title, denial makes the world go round.

A Course in Miracles, however, has a much darker view of denial (though, as we’ll see below, it has a positive version of denial). To get a full picture of that view, we need to begin with the Course’s account of the nature of reality and how the world we now seem to live in arose. The Course tells us that in truth, we are limitless beings abiding in a limitless Heaven, holy Sons of a wholly loving God, who love God and each other with a pure and infinite love. However, at some point, we had the strange desire to leave this state behind, to separate from God and from each other. We couldn’t actually do this in truth, though, because our reality is changeless; we could only do it in our imagination.

Therefore, the separation from God and each other that seems so real to us now was (and is) a denial of reality, a denial of our true nature. This is the primary denial the Course speaks about. This denial produced the world we now seem to live in. It is a dream world that is the opposite of our limitless loving reality in every way: a world full of hate in which we seem to be separate beings cut off from God, beings who must attack everything and everyone in order to survive. As grim as this world is, it is the perfect home for our illusory separate self, the ego, for it seems to prove that we really pulled off this separation, a “proof” that guarantees the ego’s survival.

The ego has a problem, though: Because we are loving beings at our core, we still yearn for love. Though the ego enjoys living in an attacking, hateful world, we don’t. Therefore, in order for the ego to keep our allegiance, it relies on a second level of denial: the denial of the full extent of hatred and attack that our denial of our loving reality produces. The ego needs to dress up its malevolence in a “loving” disguise, so that we think we’re getting the love we want while actually getting the hate the ego wants.

What is this “loving” disguise? The premier form of this disguise is what the Course calls special relationships, “the ego’s most boasted gift” (T-16.V.3:1). These are relationships that look like love but are really hate, because their purpose is to get our egocentric needs met at another’s expense; they are pseudo-love relationships “forged out of anger” (T-15.VII.4:6), in which “the ego’s hatred triumphs” (T-16.V.4:1). In more ordinary terms, special relationships are the very kind of relationships Carey describes: human relationships that seem to be all about love and friendship, but which require constant denial of unsavory elements to keep them together.

The sobering conclusion is that from the Course’s point of view, those little denials that seem to be good and necessary means of “nourishing close relationships” are much darker than we think. They are actually manifestations of far more pervasive and destructive denials: the denial of the hatred and attack that are endemic in those relationships, and the denial of our true, loving reality underneath. We may think that we just dabble in a little denial here and there. But actually, we are engaging constantly in herculean denial to keep the underlying dynamics that really run our lives at bay and hold the surface illusion of amicable relations in place.

The idea that our apparently “loving” relationships mask underlying hatred seems so extreme that it can’t possibly be true. (And it does need to be qualified; the Course is clear that there is genuine love in our relationships as well.) Yet I think that if we look at relationships with unflinching honesty, we can actually see these dynamics in action. We all engage in this delicate dance of denial, do we not? We try to be loving, yet even with those we seem to love the most, we find ourselves getting angry and nursing resentments. It is a truism that the ones you love the most are the ones that hurt you the most. Yet to keep our relationships intact, we try to deny the hurts and resentments in myriad ways. We cover them up, sugarcoat them, rationalize them, and attempt to forgive them. Sometimes these denials fail and we experience flashes of intense anger, perhaps even hatred. But we see those flashes as aberrations and quickly try to kiss and make up.

Those dark thoughts and feelings are still roiling beneath the surface, however, and the evidence that this is so emerges most starkly when relationships break up. Have you ever been shocked at the sheer viciousness that flared up as you parted ways with someone? We’ve all seen this happen in so many contexts, from marriages to friendships to in-groups to international affairs: An alliance that seemed solid turns out to be more delicate than it seemed; something blows it apart and a bloodbath, figurative or literal, ensues. The Course would simply say that these instances when love seems to turn to hate are not aberrations; the hatred was there all along. It was simply covered up by denial.

How do we get out of this nightmare? From the Course’s standpoint, we get out by peeling off those layers of denial that the ego put into place to ensure its survival. First, we need to stop denying the dark underbelly of hatred in our relationships. We need to stop playing the game of denial that holds a tenuous illusory “love” in place. As the Course says, “It is so crucial that you look upon your hatred and realize its full extent” (T-13.III.1:1). We don’t want to do this in a spirit of fear, guilt, or condemnation; instead, “Let us be very calm in doing this” (T-11.V.1:4). We are simply trying to get honest with ourselves in order to free ourselves of something that is making us miserable.

Once we do that, we can then go a step further: With God’s help, we can see that our hatred and attack are actually the denial of what lies even deeper within us: our reality, our true nature as wholly loving and innocent Sons of God, the reality that the ego denied in the beginning and has tried to keep hidden ever since. Our true nature is totally unaffected by all of our dark relationship dynamics; this recognition that our illusions have no effect on who we really are is what the Course calls “true denial” (T-2.II.2:1). This kind of denial is not putting our heads in the sand and falsely denying something that is actually there; rather, it is looking straight at something unreal and denying that it is truly there. This true denial is at the heart of the healing miracles this course is training us to perform: “The task of the miracle worker thus becomes to deny the denial of truth” (T-12.II.1:5).

This true denial is the basis of true forgiveness, the only thing that can heal our relationships and save us from the human condition. True forgiveness is not an act of false denial, in which we try to overlook a real transgression that in fairness ought to be punished. Instead, true forgiveness is an act of true denial, in which we recognize that “what you thought your brother did to you has not occurred” (W-pII.1.1:1). It looks past all false denials to the eternal truth that we are all still limitless beings of pure love. It demonstrates that whatever hateful things have seemed to happen in this nightmare of separation, the unchangeable truth is that “you love your brother with a brother’s love. And as a brother, must his Father be the same as yours, as he is like yourself in truth” (T-31.II.10:5-6).

This is what all relationships are meant to be as long as we seem to dwell on earth: not fragile alliances precariously perched on the shifting sands of denial, but genuinely loving relationships embedded in the rock of our true nature. We are meant to love each other with a brother’s love, to abide together in the luminous forgiven realm that the Course calls the “real world.” Undoing our false denial with true denial makes the real world go around.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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