Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Denial, Delusion or Depression

One young lady candidly informed me, “I’m a selfish bitch-on-wheels.” She wasn’t trying to flaunt her stuff or self-hood. Instead, she was humbly confessing that there were things about her she didn’t like – things she was trying to change.

I told her that I was very impressed with her candor. Most people are in denial and refuse to acknowledge their faults, even when they are so apparent to others. However, honest self-scrutiny can be very disheartening. I therefore asked her – I’ll call her “Marge” – how she was able to deal with the guilt and shame, seeing her faults as she did.

She shook her head, apparently acknowledging that there weren’t any easy answers. “Everyone has their faults. That’s what being a human is all about. I’ll just keep on challenging my faults.”

I couldn’t fault her response. It’s true that we are all beset by deep flaws, and some of their roots penetrate straight to the core of our soul. I also esteemed her willingness to continue the good fight against her flaws.

However, I began to wonder how she would feel about herself if, after some years, she had failed to curb her bitchiness and other negative traits that she’d surely encounter. Also, what happens to our sense of well-being or self-acceptance if they depend upon our performance – in this case, positive self-change? It seemed as if this could be a roadmap to despair. Our faults are so deep seated that our expectations for positive change might be unrealistic.

What if she remained a “bitch-on-wheels” despite her best efforts? And how would she deal with the ever-present sense of guilt and shame? The vast majority of people resort to denial to keep these unwanted feelings at a good distance. Consequently, The Book of Proverbs writes, “All a man's ways seem right to him” (21:2).

This is a truth that has repeatedly been empirically established. Psychologist Shelley Taylor writes,

  • As we have seen, people are positively biased in their assessments of themselves and of their ability to control what goes on around them, as well as in their views of the future. The widespread existence of these biases and the ease with which they can be documented suggests that they are normal. (Positive Illusions)
Perhaps to some extent, we are all “normal.” We are all in denial to some extent – an expression of our persistent need to see ourselves in a positive way and to convince others of our worthiness. However, Marge is less in denial than most. What then will this mean as her life takes her into collision course with her highly-resistant-to-change traits?

Taylor argues that we only have two choices – delusion or depression. Although she repeatedly admits that “the mildly depressed appear to have more accurate views of themselves, the world and the future” (213), she believes that delusion is the better alternative:

  • The research on depressive realism suggests that the goal of therapy might better be to help people develop cognitive illusions so that they can think more positively about themselves…employing the mildly inflated biases that normal people characteristically use. (220)
Are depression and delusion/denial the only alternatives? Not according to Jesus:

  • "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
How can truth set us free? Is it possible for us to live in the light of truth without despairing? Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, wrote 15 years later about his journey from Zen Buddhism to Christianity. He had repeatedly observed that his Christian clients would improve, no matter how serious their psychiatric condition. He concluded,

  • The quickest way to change your attitude toward pain is to accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth…We cannot lose once we realize that everything that happens to us has been designed to teach us holiness…We are guaranteed winners!
Christ guarantees that we are winners, as the Apostle Paul wrote:

  • God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
This radical truth means that we no longer need be defined by our power, purse, popularity or our accomplishments. Since we have been brought into a saving relationship with Jesus, we are now defined by the Source of all truth, power and virtue. Consequently, no other source of definition is now necessary. Our Lord forgives us, and this relegates every other concern or opinion to a tertiary status. Consequently,

  • If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

I had been married once before, when I didn’t have Christ. Whenever we fought, there was never any resolution. Denial builds a wall against reality and resolution. She was convinced that she was right, and I was convinced that I was right. What is not resolved is buried and merely resurfaces at the next disagreement.

Convinced that Christ accepts me, I can now accept myself, however unpleasant this may be. Yes, I still fight with my present wife, but now – by the mercy of God – we can face the truth about our misdeeds, kiss and make-up. We can forgive one another, seeing how much Christ has forgiven us.

I wonder which way Marge will turn – denial or depression. I pray that she opts for Jesus.



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