[Apologies to my readers. This is more than 1,700 words, but I couldn’t say it in less. Exploring a new thought, and linking it to things you already know, just takes time. And when you write it out, it’s … longish. But I do have a couple of ideas here that were “Ahas” for me, so if you have the time, I’d love to know what you think. — Hank the Interminable]
Say you did something you thought was good at the time, but later turned out to be bad. You could admit the mistake. Or you could refuse to admit it.
Any sensible person would probably say the first option was the best one. If you can admit a mistake, you can probably do something to fix it, or correct your course so you don’t do it again. And you can move on.
The second option has some variations built into it, argumentative positions that might replace the simple “I didn’t make a mistake” with:
1) You’re a liar and you’re only saying I made a mistake.
2) Something bad happened, but it wasn’t my fault.
3) Something bad happened, but it’s somebody else’s fault. (slightly different from #2)
4) Maybe I made a mistake, but nothing bad happened.
5) Maybe I made a mistake and something bad happened, but it was nowhere near as bad as what happened when other people made mistakes.
All of these positions are psychological ploys that protect you from accepting any responsibility for the mistake you’ve made. They deflect the pain of your error so you don’t have to feel it.
An immediate example springs to mind — those kids who die when their parents decide to pray over them rather than take them to doctors.
We see a couple of stories a year about them. A news story earlier this year told about “extremely religious” parents who allowed their 11 year old daughter to die of a treatable form of diabetes by seeking healing through prayer instead of medical treatment. Another one involved the Oregon couple who prayed over a son who had a medically-minor urinary tract blockage that, left untreated, led to kidney and heart failure.
In none of these stories, ever, have I heard of a parent shouting “What have we done? How could we have been so stupid?”
Instead, the parents protect themselves from any recognition of blame or wrongdoing. They get lawyered up, their “faith community” closes ranks, and the case is suddenly not about dead kids, but about religious freedom.
Their faith even seems strengthened. The 16-year-old boy who died of the urinary blockage in mid-June of this year had a 15-month-old niece who died of an infection less than 4 months earlier. In other words, the same family has lost a son and a granddaughter only months apart. That’s some serious denial.
But there might be reason for it.
Mistakes can hurt you directly. You throw a ball against a wall and it comes back and whacks you in the face. You cut a limb off a tree and it falls on you. You drive into a bridge abutment and fly through the windshield. Direct effects make mistakes pretty hard to deny.
But mistakes can also hurt you indirectly. You throw a ball against a wall and it comes back and whacks your friend in the face. You cut a limb off a tree and it falls on your neighbor. You drive into a bridge abutment and your airbag inflates and saves you from harm, but your 9-year-old daughter flies through the windshield.
In these cases, the pain is mental rather than physical, arriving through the brain’s circuits of love and compassion. You might not shed a single drop of your own blood, but knowing you just killed your daughter in a car wreck is nevertheless devastatingly, unrecoverably painful.
Fortunately, you can deflect that immense pain … for as long as you can deny that the unfortunate incident was your fault or responsibility. But the problem is, the minute you accept the blame, that delayed load of pain falls on you.
This is where the “nailing” comes in. Here’s why I say those faith-healing people are “nailed” into their beliefs.
You hold a certain religious belief and it causes the death of your son. You face the pain of losing your son, but you also face the conceptual possibility, and the much greater and longer-lasting pain, that you caused his death. But you only have to face this second pain if you admit that you made a terrible mistake.
Admission of guilt, massive pain. No admission of guilt, no additional pain.
It requires a certain amount of energy to deliberately undertake any painful act. The expectation of pain is like a speed bump in the road. The greater the expected pain, the higher the bump, until eventually it represents an insurmountable obstacle to progress in that direction.
Which means you can’t change your mind. You’re “nailed” into your original mindset, no matter how erroneous or dangerous.
It’s why some people don’t go to dentists or doctors until they’re already in great discomfort – the pain of the situation as-is has to rise to the point where going in is the LESSER pain. Initially the speed bump of expected pain is too high, but as the level of ACTUAL pain gradually rises, eventually it’s higher than the speed bump, and going to the dentist is like driving down a ramp. It becomes the easy choice.
(Frankly, I believe this is why some military families who lose sons and daughters in Iraq become super-patriots. To think anything other than that President Bush is right, that this is a just war, that Saddam had WMDs and threatened America with imminent destruction on a massive scale, is too painful. The unimaginable alternative is that their sons and daughters, coaxed into war with full parental approval, died for nothing, and less than nothing. It’s probably also why it’s virtually impossible to get out of an unjust war – if you first have to admit that ALL of those kids died for nothing, the war will drag on and the deaths will continue to mount. Paradoxically, the more who die in an unjust war, the harder that war probably is to stop. Your country is nailed into it because nobody wants to be the first to admit all those sons and daughters died for no good reason.)
Nailing works in politics, too. I’ve toyed with the quandary of President Bush and his ardent supporters for 8 years now. The man is a disastrously incompetent boob, and it was possible to see that during his first campaign. Some of us DID see it. But others of us didn’t. And some of us still don’t.
When you think about it, those several alternative arguments regarding mistakes have been very much in evidence all through Bush’s presidency: Bush never made a mistake, and people are liars for saying he did. Nothing bad that happened was Bush’s fault, it was all Clinton’s fault, or the fault of the America-hating liberals. Maybe Bush made some mistakes, but nothing bad happened. Bush made mistakes, but they were nowhere near as bad as the mistakes Clinton made.
And yet … I believe that many of his supporters started having disturbing doubts as early as Bush’s first year. Dust gathered on the chair in the Oval Office, as the man practically lived in Crawford, Texas, doing nothing much for more than half a year.
But to deal with those doubts, to admit they’d been wrong to support him, was hard. The speed bump was high enough to be painful to go over. So they denied the doubts and shored up their clamor of support.
The problem was that vocal Bush critics wouldn’t give them any peace. How would a Bush supporter, with his own unconscious doubts, react to people who not only expressed their doubts out loud, but who offered evidence supporting them? He’d support Bush even more strongly by castigating the critics. He would shut them out of his mind by loudly calling them fools and liberals and elitists.
But then came Sept. 11. An immense human tragedy, it was also a political gold mine, and Bush looked briefly presidential again. With the support of Americans and the world, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, determined to punish the terrorists and wrong-doers. Supporters felt justified and unconflicted. The critics looked even more wrong-headed, and now they could be branded traitors as well as fools.
But the events that came after, in Iraq and New Orleans and so many other places and times, continued to reveal the essential incompetence of Bush.
For Bush supporters, it was, again, like going to the dentist. To admit you were wrong about Bush, you had to open yourself up to considerable pain. For most, the only way to make the jump was to wait until the pain of daily living in Bush’s America got to where it outweighed the expected pain of the admission. It was the only way to get over the steep bump of knowing that by supporting Bush you’d helped cause the damage that was being done to your beloved America.
Things got steadily worse for even the die-hard Bush supporters over the years. Even at his most triumphant “Mission Accomplished” moment, Bush looked silly and small. In response to the growing clamor of public doubts, Bush supporters got louder and more vicious.
They did it because they were nailed into supporting Bush. The longer they stayed supporters, and the more damage Bush caused, the more firmly his supporters were nailed into backing him. It was too painful to do anything else.
John McCain, Bush’s GOP heir, is a beneficiary of that nailing.
The side-effect of nailing — the powerful denial — is in evidence at GOP rallies. Rather than a presidential candidate long past his sell-by date, and a bubbly but unqualified “Joe Sixpack” vice-presidential candidate, McCain and Palin are seen as the only alternative to “that one,” the candidate who is a secret Muslim, the deceiver who hates America, the too-youthful incompetent who is also an elitist. Nothing is wrong, it’s not our fault, the critics are all liars.
The sick part about nailing is that I don’t think it can be relieved by an outside force. No reason or cajoling, pleading or forgiveness can release the victim. Each one has to personally experience the pain that he himself caused.
Which makes me think we’re in for a long – or, scarily, possibly a short – Obama presidency. The rage of wrongness living in all those nailed Bush supporters will come out in ugly ways all through Obama’s term in office. Desperate to avoid the admission of a lengthy, dreadful mistake, their only safety is in anger.
We’re already seeing it.