Friday, December 15, 2006

Ahmadinejad, The Holocaust, and the Psychology of Denial

Working as a hospice chaplain for many years, I have experienced a lot of denial. Patients, or family members of patients, who can’t bear and refuse to deal with the reality that they or their loved one is dying, are said to be in “denial”. “Don’t tell my husband he’s dying,” says the wife of a patient I am about to visit, “He doesn’t know”. As my visit with the patient ends, he says to me, “When you visit with my wife, don’t tell her I am dying, she doesn’t know.” This is a familiar story to all of us who work in end of life care. Of course, both husband and wife know. They signed their names on papers granting them hospice care, a health care service with an eligibility requirement that patients have a prognosis of less than six months to live.

Denial has its pay-off. When a couple refuses to acknowledge that one of them is dying, they both attempt to live their lives the way they did before. Of course, one of them is very sick, but the language and actions of both patient, and spouse refuse to let on. “You’re getting stronger,” says the wife. “Maybe I can get out of bed and practice walking a bit today”, suggests the husband. “Maybe we can ask the nurse if we can get physical therapy”. “You need to regain your strength!” prompts the wife. “Eat. You can’t get better if you don’t eat.”

The cost of denial is huge. By refusing to acknowledge the truth of the situation, this couple is cheating themselves, each other, and all who know them. By not completing the necessary and healing tasks, conversations, and resolves that are integral to the one dying and to the one(s) who will go on, they are cheated. Healing and growth can only emerge through honest disclosure.

Denial is paradoxically an acknowledgment of the truth. Denial does not have an independent existence. It comes into existence whenever something is desperately wished to not be true. Denial, by definition, is attached to and a part of the truth it cannot bear to face.

Denial is a popular emotional response to reality. Alcoholics, people in prison, persons who are terminally ill, you and me in everyday life, in everyday relations with others, cling to our own actions and words despite the reality they may have created. We are innocent. We are right. We didn’t say that. We didn’t do that. I am amazed at the audacity of the accused to claim innocence even when their crimes are caught on video-tape and aired on TV. We like denial. No, we love denial. We don’t want to be wrong or others to be right. Denial safeguards us from the hard work that facing ourselves or the truth of a situation demands.

We must ask the necessary questions. What’s the pay off for Ahmadinejad if the Holocaust was not? What is it he won’t have to face or deal with, if he can convince himself and others that the Holocaust never happened? Why is he so desperate for the Holocaust not to be true? What does he want to take away from the Jewish people, from Israel, from the perpetrators who have confessed already, or from the world by his denial? What actions or beliefs will denial of the Holocaust justify for him? These are the questions we need to be asking. Not, did the Holocaust really happen? Confessions by perpetrators, documents kept of the Nazis, Christian admission of complicity, survivor testimony, research, dissertations, and technical proofs are readily available.

Denial doesn’t make truth go away. It delays the pain of what needs to be faced and accepted. It delays right words and right actions. It delays healing and moving forward in unexpectedly good directions.

Denial never negates the truth of what is, it just buries it away until enough courage arises within to face whatever it is that needs to be faced. Why does AA make public acknowledgement of one’s alcoholism a prerequisite for membership? Because sobriety’s first demand requires the courage to withdraw denial by stating the truth, “My name is so and so, and I am an alcoholic.” Only this admission, this truth coming from one’s own mouth and rising to the ears of others, this reversal of denial, this facing of truth, begins the process of recovery.

The early confessions of the Christian churches in Europe after the war related to its part in the Holocaust turned the church in a direction it had never faced before and on a theological journey still being unraveled. Destination unknown! Denial would have been easier. No changes would have been necessary. Proceed as usual. But, what the withdrawal of denial and the facing of truth have given the church is beyond its foreseeable theological horizons. It is discovering parts of itself it did not know existed (not knowing Jesus as a Jew has meant he was a stranger to us for centuries), eliminating or transforming parts of itself necessary for integrity (anti-Judaism), living with paradoxes yet to be resolved (God’s continued covenant with the Jewish people and the existence and mission of the church), and trusting in God that what the church will become is what God intended.

We have to see denial for what it is. It isn’t about truth, but about the inability to deal with or cope with the truth. Denial is usually reserved for someone directly affected by whatever it is that is being denied. In the case of the Holocaust, denial could come from the victims, from the perpetrators, or from the bystanders. Ahmadinejad was born in 1956 in Iran. He has no vested interest in the event itself,so we can only guess at what his inner motives really are in denying the Holocaust and inviting other Holocaust deniers to a conference.


Anonymous Christine said...

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8:17 PM  
Blogger Kathleen J Rusnak said...

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7:03 AM  

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