There's a book called The Denial of Death sitting on my bookshelf that I’ve never read. It makes sense - to read that book would be to step out of denial about my denial, to commit what Alan Watts calls “The Taboo” of knowing who I am. I can’t know who I am without the consciousness of my own death, the end of my world and that thin story tethering me to the sense of a meaningful life. The book won some kind of prize. I keep meaning to read it but never seem to get around to it. Too much else going on, I guess.
I sit in a quaint coffee shop in a quaint town that I’m calling home these days, a southern relic of bygone days. A cross, up on the highest hill above town, lights up each night. Elderly folks gesture and laugh beneath an American flag, the first I’ve seen at full-mast in a long time. It’s sunny today and every conversation I’ve had began with that fact. Commerce is thrumming along here, the town square is filled with nice white folks doing nice white things, and that includes me with my shiny computer and my books spread around the table, sipping down my second cup of coffee on this easy Friday morning.
This morning I sat down and slowed, opening up my laptop to the question “what’s really alive for me right now?” I was immediately taken to my grief - on nights that I can’t sleep I read articles on news websites. It’s a habit I wish I could kick, but there’s some part of me that wants to know. It’s the part that lives outside of time, the part we all have that tracks patterns. Gut hunches, intuitions, even prophecies emerge from this part. It’s the same inner compass that animals rely on when, all of a sudden, they retreat inland an hour before a tsunami hits the shoreline. It’s the part of myself I try to deny, the part that knows where all this pretense goes, that knows how incredibly insignificant my little story is and yet how incredibly tragic my denial really is.
One of the articles I read was titled “The Earth is Really Quite Sick Now.” It described the ways almost every ecological system on the planet is indicating deep trouble. It’ll probably linger on the homepage of their website for a day or two before it fades into the background, eclipsed by the latest Donald Trump drama and who said what about who.
Reality shows itself frequently. Nobody wants reality. The next article I read was about 800 million trees chopped down in the Amazon to make way for cattle ranches, and the many forest-protecting activists murdered in cold blood. A couple days ago, legal teams for Atlanta forest protectors (legally protesting a police training facility destroying the last urban forest in the city) were arrested for providing financial and legal support to arrested protesters. Another blip - the news wouldn’t even cover this one, I had to see it on Instagram. One story amongst the many hundreds I scroll past each day as I snack on whatever the fuck.
Sitting like this, slowing, punctures my denial. I’m grieving. Deep down, I’m always grieving. How could I not be and still call myself human? In less than an hour I encountered the failing of planetary ecology, the destruction of the “lungs of the planet” and the blatant dawning of fascism in a country that calls itself the most “free” in the world. As I write, a man walks down the sidewalk outside the cafe with a fresh new American flag poster, all smiles. I’m grieving and I’m constantly trying to deny it because nobody wants to go there. Honesty at this level is almost guaranteed to be isolating. So we don't.
Soon I’ll be going to a birthday party where everyone is dressing like aliens and cows. It sounds fun, I guess. It would have, at one time anyway. Just like with the last party I got invited to, and so many before, I’ll try my best to forget what I know. I think that’s what most people are doing a lot. It’s what I’m doing a lot. I think, the argument goes, we have to choose fun, we have to keep going, we have to dance in the flames. We don’t actually know, maybe we have to collapse before we are reborn like phoenixes, maybe this is all some great spiritual test. I wonder how many styrofoam cups were thrown in garbage cans destined for landfills around the world in the span of writing that sentence? I could look it up but I don’t really want to know.
As I write, I feel my grief opening up. I feel the full-belly weep that I almost never allow. I won’t allow it today either, shifting gears soon, to-do lists, alien party, and then a plane ride across the country for a wedding. I won’t talk about this at the wedding. Denial, my friend, my friend. Thank you.
I’m in denial and yet as I write, as I choose to let in a sliver of what I know deep down, I feel my shoulders relaxing some. I feel somehow more whole.
I heard the poet Ross Gay say on a podcast recently that “Joy has nothing to do with happiness and everything to do with the fact that we’re going to die.” I think that writing this, choosing to know the only knowable truth of our lives and however it may come to us - climate collapse, car accident, plane crash, crucifixion by Roman king, makes something like joy possible. It makes real life possible. It’s weird to write but I feel almost good, writing this. Not happy, but good. Like my feet are standing on something solid, and perhaps I could be bold enough to say that something is reality. Reality, at least, as my body and my inner truth compass are able to grok. More truth running in my system, a place from which to make real decisions about real facts, a place from which to relate authentically.
Writing helps. If for only this moment today, I got to touch something real and perhaps I’ll find a way to take this quivering, tender something out into this beautiful, sunny day.
“Man cuts out for himself a manageable world: he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly. He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn’t bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does. He uses all kinds of techniques, which we call the “character defenses”: he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out; he learns to embed himself in other-power, both of concrete persons and of things and cultural commands; the result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him. He doesn’t have to have fears when his feet are solidly mired and his life mapped out in a ready-made maze. All he has to do is to plunge ahead in a compulsive style of drivenness in the “ways of the world.”
-Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death