Tuesday, November 27, 2007

if you'll believe in me, i'll believe in you

In the modern vernacular, to say someone is “in denial” is to deliver a savage combination punch: one shot to the belly for the cheating or drinking or bad behavior, and another slap to the head for the cowardly self-deception of pretending it’s not a problem.

Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.
A few months ago, a friend and I had a long telephone conversation. In the midst of it, he told me he didn’t like that I brought out the boast in him. He went a step further and asked why I never boasted about much of anything. “You, who have all this shit to say something about, you just sit there quietly, not saying anything.” (To which I responded, maturely, "BAH ha ha ha.")

He said he meant to make a point about confidence – that when you know something about yourself and it's worth something, you don’t need to let anyone else know by talking about it. You just let it be. And I’m uncomfortable with compliments, but that one made grin and be grateful. I wondered if it’s because I’m the younger sidekick to a self-promotional older sister (who else sent revised Christmas lists to her parents at age 7?) so I never learned the trick of talking the talk. Or it may be because I’ve always felt guilty for getting too much attention when I was young by the unearned virtue of surviving a rough start.

It’s honestly easier for me to see things to boast about in other people. I think it’s a Yeatsian joke that the folks who see the least in themselves lack conviction while those who can perceive more than they deserve bear the passionate intensity. And it sometimes takes me a while to make the distinction between them. But if I give someone too much credit, I’ll eventually see their boast-unworthy side and be less Buddhist than I'd wish about them. I’ve hexed all sorts of unhealthy ends on people (and their sensitive body parts) who have wronged my friends. I’ve wished something would come around to those who go around hurting others without remorse.

And some of the too-much-credit I know I give is about the denial detailed in the quote above that I took from a NY Times article last week about the psychology of it. The piece goes on to argue that it’s essential for us to deny hurts and lies because they make relationships survive. Denial (not just a river!) is an evolutionary trick we conjure so we can forgive the inevitable slights that come and go with love. It’s as if our mind needs some magic to repair what would otherwise separate us one from one.

There is of course another way to come to forgiveness. It’s the imagination necessary to put yourself in someone else’s place and wonder what you would do under the same conditions. What courage or fear would guide you to something wise or something you'd wish to submit to revision. What love would make someone else more important to you than you. What worry or shame would keep you from slighting yourself before you would cut another.

The origins of my judgment are often better than their results. It sometimes takes an outside view to make me see in sharpness what I can blur with denials. I know I have rosily fallen for manipulation rather than truth and found myself to blame in what followed.

In the end, though, the only thing I’ve learned is more forgiveness. The only thing that remains, after earned time, is more hope. And I’m not sure I want to be cured of thinking most people are worth more than they think they are. The lessons I learn again and again in deciphering the difference are ones I haven’t mastered by any means. But -- and this is boastful -- I don’t know if I want to alter the part of me that invites the variety of experience that pairs with seeing beneath a surface and finding what I thought I saw, something I didn’t see and something to forgive in each of us as we emerged.