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Beneath Denial

posted 8 May 2015, 04:19 by Tim Elliston   [ updated 14 May 2015, 08:45 ]
By Oriah

Let’s talk about the difficulty of accepting what is, the temptation to go into denial about some aspect of ourselves or the world that we desperately want to be different. Let’s start simple.

I can’t go out in the evening.

There it is: the reality of my physical limitations at this time. A truth I have been tinkering, bargaining, and arguing with for years. I’ve been pretending that maybe if I just understood this reality better, just negotiated a better “deal,” I could change and control (just a little) that which is getting in the way of something I want.

It is of course not that I really can’t go out in the evening. I can. I do, particularly when I am feeling like my underlying health is somewhat stable. And every time- every single time- no matter how much the gathering or event inspires or relaxes, no matter how much the content or people are close to my heart and deeply valued- I end up in bed for most of the next three days or more. And let me be clear- I am not talking about staying out past ten, or imbibing any substances that might take a toll on the body. I’m talking about going to a writing group, or a friend’s art opening, or a small quiet gathering to celebrate the solstice. Really.

I’ve had ME- Myalgic Encephalomyletis (or Chronic Fatigue as it is called in those parts of the English speaking work under the influenced of American health insurance companies) for twenty-seven years. There’ve been acute periods of severe disability and much longer times of chronic illness largely managed by accepting some limits. I can’t drink alcohol. I don’t eat food with any artificial chemical content. I can’t travel extensively. (When considering a trip to Turkey a few years ago my doctor casually asked how anxious I was to see the inside of the Turkish hospital system.) I’m okay with these and many other limitations. I accept them, allow that they may change, work around them, and have come to have deep faith that none of the limitations this illness brings stop me from being and living who and what I am completely.

But. . . I just want to be able to go to a friend’s for an evening meal and still get up and function the next day! Is that too much to ask?!

Hear my frustration? Hear my unwillingness to accept what is? Hear how I create suffering for myself by going out and then railing against the consequences of my choices?

Recently, a friend told me that New York psychiatrist Mark Epstein once told him that he saw people who were in denial about something as “caught in an old sorrow.” It took my breath away. Naming others as being “in denial” about something that seems oh-so-clear to us (and aren’t we all stunningly brilliant about another’s blindness?!) has become a bit of a bad habit in many spiritual and psychotherapeutic communities. It implies a deliberate ignorance. Epstein’s phrase- “caught in an old sorrow”- says so much more, speaks to the inner struggle, and allows us to see the other/ourselves with real compassion.

So, as I lay in bed berating myself for once again going into denial about my inability to go out in the evening, I wonder: where am I caught in an old sorrow and what might that sorrow be? And I get that funny sinking feeling that comes when we know we’re onto some essential and less-than-pleasant truth about ourselves. And I remember.

I remember in my body, the feeling of being desperately lonely as a teenager. I lived in a very small, conservative town in Northern Ontario, and I was always asking questions about faith, beliefs, ethics, and social justice. I read and wrote and loved to learn. I was decidedly out of sync with the majority of my peers. I wanted to be included, connected, to belong, but I just couldn’t stop trying to start discussions about why God seemed to answer some prayers and not others, or the merits of literature and art in creating change in the world. At sixteen, I was not what many would have called a fun date or a party asset!

When I came to Toronto I was delighted to find fellow travellers, and my work in studying and teaching shamanic practises connected me to a wonderful community of delightful people with similar interests and questions. People who primarily do their socializing and sharing in the evenings because they have jobs during the daytime.

And so, I revisit the old sorrow that fosters denial about my ability to go out in the evening. Knowing this, perhaps I can tend that old sorrow and be with what is in this moment- not anticipating or trying to avoid the loneliness that sometimes comes when we cannot join with others, whatever the reason.

Where do you find yourself fighting reality? Where would those who love you say you slip into denial? Perhaps there is an old sorrow that has you caught, that clouds your vision of what is, that needs a little attention so it can let you go and you can be with what is without suffering.