Sunday, May 13, 2007

Refusing to Quit: Denial at its Best

I’ve been harsh on denial, in this blog, and from the pulpit.

Now I'm not changing my mind. Denial is a destructive force. Health problems, financial problems, and relationship problems don’t go away when you close your eyes. Denying problems only compounds them. Denial, at its worst, is the coward’s justification for inaction.

But denial is not all bad; it also serves an important function. Elizabeth Kubler Ross famously noted that denial is one of the initial stages in the cycle of grief. Denial is a healthy reaction to the shock of tragic news. It’s a coping mechanism that keeps us from choking on too much pain.

This type of denial calms people at difficult times. Mourners tell me that they feel detached from reality at funerals, as if they are watching themselves on a television screen. It is simply too painful for them to fully absorb their personal loss.

But denial, at its best, gives us the courage to be optimistic.

The Talmud (Ketubot 104a) relates a fascinating story about denial:

“On the day when Rabbi died the Rabbis decreed ……that whoever said that Rabbi was dead would be stabbed with a sword.”

Rabbi, (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) the most prominent Rabbi of his time, is about to die. People always love to speculate about the impending death of a celebrity. But hearing people cavalierly gossip about the imminent death of their beloved teacher is too much for the Rabbis. They don’t want him declared dead before his time.

The Rabbis are not just lashing out emotionally. They are also teaching us an important lesson about optimism. It is wrong to quit early.

It’s easy to give up on life. A distraught family wonders whether a futile fight will only prolong suffering. Doctors wonder whether they should pull out all the stops, when there might be other patients who are more deserving of scarce resources.

Here, optimistic denial is critical. Sometimes, you can give up too quickly. In a matter of life and death, you have to hang on to hope, even to a long shot. As the Talmud says, “even if a sharp sword is sitting on your neck, don’t stop praying” (Berachot 10a).

Yes, most people who are on their deathbed end up dying. But there are times when the long shots do make it. I personally have seen people rise from their deathbed. And years later I see them on the street, and thank God for giving them the blessing of optimistic denial.

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