By Keith Ablow, MD
Human beings have a kind of psychological Achilles’ heel. We don’t like to experience pain. Sigmund Freud called this reflex to pull away from suffering the “pleasure principle.” Again and again, we candy coat reality, telling ourselves lies about our relationships and our childhoods, as if burying the pain we lived through will make it go away. It never does, of course. It just fuels all the bankrupt strategies human beings employ to try to keep emotional reality at bay—alcoholism, sexual addiction, overspending, getting lost on the World Wide Web.
Buried truths are the roots of depression and anxiety. Ultimately, we all need to be authentic, to look squarely at the complications in our lives, many of them painful ones. It makes us human, connects us to the challenges others face and gives us the insight to make real and lasting changes.
Burying painful facts by using psychological defenses like denial or booze or cocaine or one tumultuous, distracting relationship after another is no different than trying to treat an abscess with pain relievers. The trouble is that the infection gets worse and worse, spreading silently, under cover, until it invades muscle and bone and seeds the bloodstream, then the heart itself. Then a cure is much harder to achieve (if not impossible) and requires far more aggressive measures, like multiple IV antibioticsa, or even surgery, to cut away diseased, dying tissue.
Americans--taken as a whole--have the same tendency, it turns out, to want to avoid economic suffering. After all, seeing our economic circumstances for what they really are would mean having to experience the pain of big businesses—institutions we consider part of our life stories—dissolving. It would mean coming to grips with the fact that decades of non-competitive practices and products from huge companies that have left major industries on life support, when they have no real pulse, anymore. It would mean acknowledging that there are limits to the benefits companies can offer workers. It would mean admitting that politicians ignored timely cures for pathologies in our economy that have now spread to the muscle and bone and, yes, the heart of our great country. It would mean watching neighbors and friends and family members losing their homes because they, the banking system or both lost sight of reality and decided to get “high” on loans that should never have been made, loans that transported home “owners” and mortgage lenders into a euphoria of fake affluence that was as removed from the truth as any high induced by heroin or Ecstasy. It would mean not pretending that 9/11 was anything but what it was: the most horrifying evidence that millions of murderous people in faraway places see our love of liberty and our embrace of compassionate religions as abhorrent to them and, therefore, want to destroy us. It would mean acknowledging that the struggle against such dark forces must be unrelenting and will cost us dearly. It would mean simply this: experiencing pain. And the avoidance of pain is now not only part of our psyches as human beings, but an undeniable part of our national character.
If we are bored, we turn to our iPods or Wii machines to distract us. If we are depressed we rush to take antidepressants to feel happier. If we are panicked we take anti-anxiety agents to feel more secure. When self-esteem eludes our young people, they turn to their bodies for sexual gratification or YouTube for intoxicating glimpses of staged antics. When our own lives worry us, we shift our attention to the PR-driven, fake highs and lows of celebrities.
The path out of the economic and cultural trouble in which we find ourselves lies in resolving to not turn away from the pain at hand. It means inspecting all our actions—including government bailouts of banks and industry and homeowners—to make certain they aren't attempts to simply avoid reality and suffering (which many of them are). It means finding true American character again in our ability to face our problems head on, with open hearts. It means learning again that we can survive anything we do not run from.
If we do less than this, if we luxuriate in medicating ourselves with one economic and political fantasy after another, we will drift further from credible solutions. More, we will create an opening for those with very focused, very real and potentially very destructive, intentions to achieve genuine power in America. Because dodging pain weakens us as individuals and as a people and emboldens those who seek to subjugate individual thought and freedom.
Our battle to face reality is now an internal one we can win by deciding to stop evading it. But reality will have its due, one way or another. The truth always wins. If we cannot wrestle in earnest with our own demons—economic and cultural—we will have to dig deep to find our best selves when we are in worse pain, in even more perilous times.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist and Fox News Contributor with offices in Boston and Manhattan. Contact him at email@example.com