Doubt, indulged and cherished, is in danger of becoming denial; but if honest, and bent on thorough investigation, it may soon lead to full establishment of the truth. ~ Ambrose Bierce
If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be vague. ~ Unknown
Ever denied anything about yourself that was, in fact, true? I don’t mean the false modesty that comes with a reply beginning something like, “Oh, this old thing?” I don’t even mean the denial that’s not actually supposed to be a denial such as, “Madam chairperson, on advice of counsel, I respectfully invoke my right to remain silent and decline to answer your question.” No, I mean the situation where you simply lie to yourself and/or someone else.
“Ben, did you burn down that vacant lot?”
“Me? I absolutely did not burn down that vacant lot. And, besides, it was an accident.”
Ever notice how we rarely use contractions when adamantly denying something? We want to make certain every lying word is heard clearly.
I’ve never been what you might call a great liar. It’s just that my homemade gunpowder didn’t explode like it was supposed to. I’m not certain whether the recipe included too much sulfur, charcoal, or salt peter. Oops, I said salt peter. As a kid, that sounded kind of dirty. I wouldn’t even say it in front of my mother. Lots of things sound kind of dirty when you’re a kid and just learning to cuss. Potassium nitrate was the safer way to go. It sounds more scientific.
Along with playing cowboys and Indians, cussing seems to be a rite of passage, particularly for boys. It didn’t matter that you had no idea what a lot of the words were supposed to mean, either. To be really good at it, you needed to practice cussing with a certain kind of vocal intonation that signaled everyone else you were talking dirty. Practicing in front of a mirror helped perfect the best delivery. If you got really good, you could make absolutely anything sound dirty. It helped if you hung around older boys for this part of your education.
Anyway, I carried my gunpowder to the vacant lot in a glass jar. I think I may have misunderstood the way the chemical reaction was supposed to take place. I sprinkled a little of the gunpowder along the ground as my fuse, allowing it to lead back to the gunpowder which lay in an open jar. Sadly, I discovered later, my mixture wasn’t packed tightly enough to give the desired explosion. After lighting my quasi-fuse, I ran to what I thought was a safe distance. You could, after all, put out an eye with the glass shards that were going to be projected out in all directions at the speed of light. I braced myself for the anticipated explosion.
Nothing, however, appeared to be happening except that a bit of smoke rose lazily from the general vicinity of the jar. Still, I didn’t feel I could run back to check it because, of course, it could explode at any moment. What actually happened, however, was that the smelly mixture just sort of sat there sizzling. Of course, even sizzling gunpowder in the middle of a field of dry grass has an effect you may not want – may not have even anticipated. Before long, there was a widening circle of burning grass spreading out and away from that jelly jar now glowing with bubbling sulfur.
I think I may have cussed that day.
“I’ve called the fire department!” called out the woman from across the street. Uh, oh. I’d been spotted. “I’ll run get some water,” I called back as I ran the half-block back to our house. I believe I really did find a bucket, fill it with water, and run back to attempt to douse the flames. Of course, by then burning grass covered an area considerably larger than when I’d left moments before. I decided it was time to run back for more water – or more to the point, to hide in my room until the coast was clear. I could hear the sirens and just knew there’d soon be a knock at the door and envisioned myself being dragged away. At least the horizontal stripes on my prison uniform would help make me look not quite so skinny.
I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t have access to the internet during those years. I might have found a recipe for a nuclear bomb. I was sort of inquisitive in that way. I don’t think that recipe calls for any salt peter, though.
Denial involves a lot of lying, to yourself more than others. It’s defined as “a refusal to grant the truth of a statement or allegation.” If you can lie to yourself convincingly enough, it’s easier to lie to someone else, don’t you think? It matters little whether or not you’re guilty as long as you can find justification, if only in your mind, for your actions. But, honesty is the best policy, right? Sounds good on paper, as they say. In reality, the ultimate denial is believing we don’t lie on a regular basis. We like to call them little white lies. We like to think we’re sparing someone else’s feelings. We like to deny they are still lies.
In my own case, I found it necessary to wrap myself in a cloak of denial from an early age. There were things happening I didn’t understand and couldn’t talk about, but seemed to know instinctively were wrong. I know I was an extremely honest little boy – except when I wasn’t. It’s not that I started out deliberately to deceive anyone, it’s just that it seemed increasingly necessary. I was caught in a web of contradictions. The split into two little boys began by the time I was five. I came to refer to one of those little boys as Good Ben. The other would forever become known to me as Bad Ben. I’m pretty sure they both knew each other, but it was necessary to maintain a degree of plausible deniability. Good Ben, the little Baptist boy all dressed up for church, needed to be able to deny the existence of Bad Ben, the sexually active five-year-old who didn’t care whether he was dressed up or even dressed, for that matter. I lived in denial for most of my life that one or the other of those little boys had ever existed. Mostly, I ended up believing that Good Ben had been a figment of my fertile imagination.
You see, I believe plausible deniability swings both ways. For whatever reason, by age seventeen it appears to have become necessary for me to deny the existence of Good Ben. What was left of me, I thought, had nothing to do with anything good. Hence, Good Ben had to become a myth I’d told myself on occasion in order to appear better than I knew myself to be. I’d decided it had all been an act designed to help keep me out of trouble. I suppose I just couldn’t reconcile the two sides. My world was one of black or white, good or bad. I’d left no possibility both could exist in the same person, even though I was able to allow that possibility in others and see that they were basically good.
Anyone remember that Donny and Marie Osmond song “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘n Roll”? Well, I gradually came to believe that I wasn’t a little bit anything. I was only one thing. I was bad. Any opinion to the contrary on your part was simply the result of good acting on my part. I’d come to believe I had to appear good so others wouldn’t notice I wasn’t. I’d given up on the possibility that anything I’d ever done that you might classify as good was without an ulterior motive.
Looking back, I’m not sure I understand how all this happened. It seems a switch had been thrown sometime before I was five. And there was no doubt in my mind that I was responsible for it. I learned to never give myself a break. I learned it was never anyone else’s fault. It felt like everyone could see what was going on in my mind and, since a lot of that wasn’t good, I had to try more and more to act as though there was something good about me to distract you. If I acted crazy enough, if I tried hard enough to do good, I could somehow block those thoughts in my head from traveling across the room into your head.
I think I was tired a lot as a child. Constant fear is exhausting. Increasingly, I kept more and more to myself. One of the reasons my friend David and I got along in high school was that we’d discovered we could say anything to each other — no holds barred. Well, almost anything. In the end, I decided there was one thing I could tell him that, as it turns out, he wasn’t ready to hear. He walked away — if only for a while. But it reinforced there were things I must keep to myself.
One of the reasons I was so successful at forgetting huge chunks of my childhood, I believe, was that I’d learned to deny things. If I refused to believe something had happened, I could gradually begin to believe it never happened. That works only up to a point, however. Attempting to forget everything bad, it became necessary to forget anything good. After all, any good I might have been willing to admit to was tied in some way to something bad. Consequently, it was all bad. And that’s how I began to remember it.
Ever notice how the harder you try not to do something, the harder it is not to do that thing? The harder I tried to forget, the more I seemed to remember. The real problem came because the things I came to remember the best were some of the worst things. Those are the things that stood out because they were big. Big disappointments, big mistakes.
I was baptized when I was eight years old. I remember it now as a very important part of my life. For many years, though, I remembered it only in connection with a lot of bad things. I remembered that this must have also been part of the act that was supposed to portray me in a good light. When I sit and remember the few things I did that may have been truly good, they are tied to feelings that say that couldn’t have been the real me.
How does this happen? I learned at a very early age there were things I shouldn’t say. There were things I shouldn’t talk about. Gradually, I came to a place where it simply didn’t occur to me to say anything to anyone. I was either going to get in trouble or I was going to help someone else know all the reasons available to them why they shouldn’t like me. Fifty years later, I’m still trying to unlearn those things.
School’s back in, I’m happy to say. When a troubling memory pops up these days, I try not to deny its existence. In fact, I may invite it to stay a while. I invite that memory to talk to me about what else might have been happening around the same time. As long as I simply try to deny that something happened, the more likely I am to refuse to acknowledge anything – good or bad. My defensive nature takes over to demand that none of this was my fault. At the same time, of course, Bad Ben is demanding that it was all my fault. I’ve found the only way to release the feelings and accept that at least some of the responsibility lies elsewhere is to step outside a little bit and look at the situation as much like a casual observer as possible. My ability to be understanding of others doesn’t extend back to myself very often.
I believe I have an understanding nature because I know what it feels like to be looked at and judged without any knowledge of the circumstances surrounding any incident. I know things are never black and white. I don’t know what’s happened in the past to someone else that drives their actions. It’s important to take responsibility for our actions. It’s also important to realize those actions may be driven by a set of circumstances which are hard to understand, to change, or even to know.
From the age of eight on, I believed I had a calling. Back then, I was pretty sure that calling was to become a minister or a missionary. As time went on and my self-image continued to sink, that idea turned into an impossibility. Bad Ben simply wasn’t cut out to be in a position of leading others in a quest to be good. I’d have to deny that any of the dark side of me existed in order to do that, right? We often demand a very high standard of those we accept as leaders. In the process, we tend to forget they’re human, then treat them as something other than human.
The calling never left. It’s traveled with me for many years, though I attempted to deny it in a number of ways. I’m gradually learning that I am also human. The standard I hold myself to is just as unreasonable as the one to which we often hold others. I know now there’s still a calling, though the nature of it has changed. Perhaps it’s to attempt to help others see the destructive nature of denial. Just as it’s wrong to deny there’s no wrong you can do, it’s equally wrong to deny there’s no good you can do.
Andre Gide said, “Believe in those who are seeking the truth, doubt those who find it.” I distrust people who are certain they have the real truth – the only truth. I realize now, however, that I’d become one of those people. I’ve known the real truth about myself for many years with a high degree of certainty. And knowing that truth, I stopped seeking any other truth about me. By denying there was any good in me, I doomed myself to a life of trying to convince others of that awful truth at the same time I believed I was hiding it from them.
In the end, I’m trying to stop denying the existence of any part of me — the good, the bad, the ugly. I’m trying to understand, then believe, there is no Good Ben, no Bad Ben. There’s only Ben. Once I began the process of introducing Good to Bad, I started down the road to realizing they were merely good and bad. When I stop capitalizing the traits that go to make up me, I find they are able to meet in the middle. On middle ground, both sides are learning how to erase the line I drew in the sand so many years ago. Both are attempting to guide the boat back to shore and end the long trip down denial.
My passport’s been punched. It’s time to move on to a new port.