I’m spent quite a bit of time here lately musing about truth — how we seek it, how we dodge it, whether we’re ready for it, etc. But what about those times when we refuse to hear it? What about those times when the truth is right in front of us, the evidence spread out before us, and we still seek to diminish it or rationalize it or excuse it away?
I’m not talking about denial here, which is, to my mind, a kind of on-going avoidance of a proven or suspected truth. What I’m talking about is the more immediate sensation of hearing or seeing the truth, and trying to find a way around it to a more pleasant outcome. My girl friends and I have a shorthand name for this. We call it the mouse in a maze.
The mouse in a maze is essentially what happens when something hurtful happens and your brain struggles to make sense of it in such a way as to minimize the hurt. Your mind races, frantically, down every corridor of possibility, trying to locate just one plausible alternative to the truth, anything that might feel better than the truth sitting in front of you. Your imagination is like a mouse in a maze, hitting dead end after dead end, but, undeterred, turning around and heading in another direction after the much-desired cheese. Finally, you hit upon a possibility or an alternative that just might explain away the truth that you don’t want to acknowledge or process. And you cling to that possibility, devouring it like the mouse does the cheese.
Still not clear on the concept? How about an illustrative hypothetical?
Let’s say that your best friend arrives on your doorstop one day, looking ashen and sad, and reports that she just saw your husband leaving a local hotel, in the middle of the day, with a stunning blonde on his arm. They were laughing intimately and cuddling, the familiarity between them was obvious. Your friend is devastated on your behalf and offering to help in any way possible.
And off goes the mouse!
Your brain tell you that there must be another explanation. He simply can’t be having an affair! It isn’t possible! If you just think hard enough, you’ll figure this out and everything will still be okay. Your life will continue without the catastrophic disruption that this news portends.
Even though you know that he said he’d be at the office in meetings all day. Even though the only meaningful contact the two of you have had recently involves raised voices. Even though you don’t know any blondes that look like your friend just described. Even though you know that you and your husband haven’t had sex in months. Even though when you texted him an hour earlier, he’d replied that he was tied up on a conference call and couldn’t talk.
Your brain races down corridor after corridor, trying and discarding possibilities.
Maybe he had a meeting at the hotel! Maybe the blonde is a client! Maybe it wasn’t him at all, but just someone who looked like him and drove the same car and had the same smile! Maybe! Maybe!! Maybe!!!
With pathetic frequency, my brain will pounce on a possibility — aha! — seize it, and diligently begin incorporating it into my psyche as a truth to be nurtured and protected and jealously guarded from anyone or anything that might undermine it. Then, if left to its own devices, it would gradually morph into delusion and mature into full grown denial. Except that I’m lucky. I have friends who call me on my bullshit and remind me that the mouse is running in the maze. And as soon as they do, the whole awful, wobbly facade of falseness comes crashing down and I’m drenched in the actual truth. Which is often painful and difficult, but still preferable to the serene, eerie, and false Land of Denial.
The above hypothetical is truly that — and not part of my actual experience — but there have been plenty of equally unambiguous moments that my brain has struggled to neatly explain away. I’ve watched my friends do the same, sometimes over and over again in a relationship before the mouse grows weary of the race and the brain sees the truth for what it is.
We want so badly to be able to trust, and we don’t want to ever be accused of jumping to conclusions or allowing our fear to get the better of us. Plus, sometimes, we just plain love the person too much to let go of that love without a fight. So we try mightily to find an alternative that will allow us to continue loving that person who has just hurt us, to diminish their actions to something manageable, to create an alternate reality in which they are still whom we want to believe them to be.
Sometimes the alternative truth works, but generally not for long. Because, typically, whatever behavior unleashed the mouse the first time, will reappear again and again and the mouse will run out of corridors of possibility and collapse, exhausted, at the feet of the truth. Those moments, in which the truth is naked and unadulterated, are blinding like the sun.
Our society certainly has plenty of residents living in the Land of Denial, and I have always been simultaneously intrigued and discouraged by those who choose to live there. I say “choose” because it is, in fact, a choice, and one that is made anew each day. Because as hard as it is to come to grips with the truth sometimes, denial is an even bigger bitch. On-going, successful denial requires constant sandbagging of the shores — reinforcing those barriers to the truth — so that the alternate reality is not threatened or undermined. It’s exhausting, lonely, and usually futile to live in Denial. But some people become so adept at it, so practiced at locating and holding the cheese over and over again, that it becomes the only reality they actually know.
As for me, my current wish is that, as I become less fearful of the truth, I will correspondingly be less likely to release the mouse to run. But when I slip, and my brain starts to race, I will pick up the phone and let a friend set me right. Hopefully.