When we were in school, a girl I knew was called ‘Cleopatra’. A fine name, evoking images of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet, that was not her real name. In fact, I have forgotten what her name was.
‘Cleopatra’ was best known for denying she did anything wrong. Did you eat that last piece of cake? Deny. Did you accidentally trip me as we ran for the bus? Deny. Quite soon she became known as the Queen of Denial – and from there to Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile was but a step.
Now, all these years later, I realise she might have stumbled onto something. Denial is a brilliant defence mechanism, a great way to ignore something bad and therefore not have to acknowledge it and give it breath. It is denial that keeps many doctors and surgeons in business. When they ask, rather like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, “Why didn’t you come to me before?”, the honest answer usually is “I was in denial.”
But we find other reasons, because we don’t want the doctor or surgeon to think that we lack self-awareness or are what the medical profession calls ‘losers’.
There is much to be said for denial. Friends who refused to believe there was anything called ‘Covid-19’, refused to change their lifestyle and ignored vaccinations were clearly in denial. But they have come through smiling, and without the mental trauma the rest of us went through. Never underestimate the power of denial.
It is not a coincidence that the Village Idiot is the happiest man around. He lacks the intelligence to understand. He is in denial. Like the philosopher said, he does not take life too seriously because he knows he is not going to get out of it alive. Useful to know that.
Over the years I have convinced myself variously that the pain I had in my knee was imaginary, that my cholesterol level is ideal, that the spot on my arm which occasionally asserts itself does not exist. Only pain acknowledged can worry you – deny that, and you can ignore the day of reckoning. Or at least postpone it.
If suffering is inevitable, you might as well push it as much into the future as possible. It will come, so why invite it (by acknowledging it) ahead of time? Denial is irresponsible behaviour, I was once told, but many of us would rather be in denial and happy than accept and suffer.
I think it was Isaac Asimov who said that the easiest way to solve a problem is to deny it exists. I may have read that in school, but denying the denial was what I did best then.