When faced with the unacceptable — the death of a child, the destruction of one’s life work, the collapse of social order or one’s belief system — there is a natural response, a pattern of grief, that follows a more or less predictable pathway. The first step is denial, according to noted psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross.
This couldn’t happen. Someone made a mistake. I can’t believe it — because if I do my world will fall apart.
This is not stupidity or an intellectual defect. Actually it comes from the heart, but it involves a fatal flaw: self-deception. And it warps an individual’s ability to make decisions in the real world.
A number of individuals still deny the Holocaust. I’ve met them: Germans who simply can’t believe their fellow countrymen were capable of such horrendous crimes; Americans who were taught to believe Jews are clever manipulators and part of “a deep state” that controls the media. These individuals can talk to a Holocaust survivor, see the numbers tattooed on his forearm and still insist it is part of a Jewish conspiracy.
It’s the same with those who deny that our planet is in jeopardy due to uncontrolled use of fossil fuels. They see the statistics, they read the charts, but they refuse to believe the conclusion: Human activity is fouling our planet. It has to be a hoax. Otherwise everything we believed in, everything we worked for, was wrong.
After denial comes anger. It’s not right. It’s not fair. Somebody has failed and must be made to pay. Anger is followed by bargaining: We’ll change. We’ll do better next time. Just give us back our innocence, our security!
When that is impossible, depression sets in. Depression can kill. It saps the joy in life. It undermines creativity. For an individual, or a culture, to rebound from an existential crisis requires a paradigm shift, an entirely new way of processing experience.
There is a final stage to this kind of crisis, and therein lies a kind of salvation. The final stage is acceptance. The unthinkable has happened, and as rational, thinking, and yes, loving human beings, we adapt and deal with the consequences.
Albert Camus famously said, “The only serious question in life is whether to kill yourself or not.” In the Nazi concentration camps at the height of the horror, men and women starved, beaten, cursed and humiliated still fought to stay alive. Their raw courage overwhelms me.
Joan O. King