Ignorance Is Not Bliss: The False Comfort of Denial

In 2018, an Ohio man, a former Nike executive and digital commerce expert, admitted to the New York Times he was ignorant. It was unusual. People these days enjoy being seen as experts (even when they are most certainly not)—in our day and age, knowledge is power.*

The truth is that Erik Hagerman wasn’t dumb, he was just uninformed. Back then, he couldn’t relay any information about current events. He didn’t know about the Russia investigations, Charlottesville, or the Parkland, Florida school shooting. He didn’t know that North Korea’s dictator visited China, or that there was a Women’s March in 2017. The hashtag #metoo was meaningless to him (I wonder if he knew what a hashtag was?). He couldn’t quote a Trump tweet, nor a Dow Jones digit.

How was this possible? He hadn’t been in a coma, nor did he live off the grid. He simply chose not to know.

On November 8, 2016, he began a self-imposed exile from the news. He was so incensed by the presidential election results that day, that he created what he called “the blockade”: a wall of defense against the barrage of social media, chatter of neighbors and family, television news, and print media. Mr. Hagerman built this wall by playing white noise at coffee shops, scolding friends if they talked about politics or news of any kind, and not watching television or using the internet. He admitted to being a bit bored, but he didn’t mind.

In counseling parlance, Mr. Hagerman engaged in conscious denial. Denial happens when we consciously or unconsciously reject our reality (i.e., our emotions, circumstances, identity). In the short term, denial can be helpful, as our minds absorb a difficult turn of events. But in the long term, it is unhealthy, prevents personal growth, and can have a negative impact on our relationships.

But to Mr. Hagerman, ignorance was bliss. (I assume he left exile on November 3, 2020.)

Ignorance is Bliss

Ignorance is bliss is an oft-repeated phrase. Taken at face value, it encourages remaining clueless about reality, that we are better off not knowing. Admittedly, there is some comfort in a temporary avoidance of anxiety or stress over a situation. Perhaps you envy Mr. Hagerman his oblivion during those four years.

Eighteenth-century engraving of Eton boys swimming and playing. Image: Heartheboatssing.com.

The phrase is originally from a poem by Thomas Gray written in 1742, but Gray is not touting the benefits of denial. He wrote it after observing children playing on the grounds of England’s Eton College where he went to school as a child:

Alas! regardless of their doom,
            The little victims play;
      No sense have they of ills to come,
            Nor care beyond to-day:
      Yet see how all around 'em wait
      The ministers of human fate
      And black Misfortune's baleful train! 

Yes, this poem is a bit bleak. He closes with these words:

Yet, ah! why should they know their fate,
      Since sorrow never comes too late,
            And happiness too swiftly flies?
      Thought would destroy their Paradise.
      No more;—where ignorance is bliss,
            'Tis folly to be wise.

In other words, these precious boys would know soon enough the challenges of life: why strip away their innocence and joy too soon?

That is fine for children. They should be allowed to play and laugh and love unburdened while they are young. Adults, however, are expected to face reality. But it isn’t always easy.

Shutting Our Eyes

Like Mr. Hagerman (I don’t mean to pick on the chap, lots of us use denial as a coping mechanism), we may be tempted to shut our eyes to inconvenient truths about ourselves or others, or even to an evil crouching at our door. (Several years ago, I was working on my master’s in counseling. Early on, as I struggled with making an accurate diagnosis, one of my professors told me that I was a bit of a Pollyanna—too easily believing the best about people and circumstances—and he was not wrong.)

However, I haven’t found any passage in the Bible that suggests we should remain blissfully unaware of hard facts. The Apostle Paul, when he encourages the Philippians in chapter 4 to think about noble, right, and praiseworthy things (Phil. 4:8), he is not telling them to shut off their brains (he also says to think about “true” things). He is continuing his thought on the peace mentioned in verse 7.

The Peace of God

The “peace of God that transcends understanding” (v. 7) is promised to us when we talk to God in prayer about our anxieties (v. 6). Inferred in Paul’s prescription for peace, however, is the fact that we will have unsettling circumstances, challenges, and fears. But, the peace of God and the God of peace (v. 9) will keep us from losing our minds over this stuff: He “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).

This gives me real comfort.

Our peace is not as easily robbed if we intentionally remember that God is good (all the time) and think about all that He has already done for us. (By the way, I am not minimizing the reality of anxiety disorders—counseling degree, remember? Prayer is a start; therapy and medication are God’s gifts as well!)

When About to Climb a Mountain, Take a Knee. Or a Chair.

2021 was a rough year for me—hills, mountains, valleys: you name it, I climbed it or fell into it (I’m not much of a hiker, by the way). There were painful circumstances (and painful people). Thankfully, we also had some real joys, like the birth of another healthy granddaughter.

Philippians 4 became my reality, if only for a few minutes each day, as I slid into my corner chair in the early morning hours, Bible in hand. I would sit with God, admitting my foibles and need for His grace, drinking from the well of His love, even as love was denied me elsewhere. It was Phil. 4 on repeat. Every day.  

We may believe that it is easier to stuff our sorrows in a drawer and sort through them another year. Sure, it hurts less—for a time. A wise friend once told me that we often try to cover our wounds with bandaid after bandaid, when all along the Lord knows the most effective means of healing is to expose the wound to the air—you must rip the bandaid off. That hurts!

But it is through exposing our darkness to God’s lamp that we learn more about ourselves and just how faithful and trustworthy the Lord is. His light exudes love, and its healing is better than any sun lamp. It’s a little odd that we can be in the Light while going through darkness. But that’s the reality of the Christian.

Note: denial can be deadly. Jesus warned His disciples of the peril they would face after His death:  “For a brief time still, the light is among you. Walk by the light you have so darkness doesn’t destroy you. If you walk in darkness, you don’t know where you’re going” (Jn 12:35-36, The Message).

He spoke to them as a group for good reason: a single disciple choosing to ignore Jesus’s teachings and giving into darker impulses would imperil the others. I am reminded of Peter reacting in anger as Jesus was arrested. Peter picked up a sword and cut off a soldier’s ear. Jesus raised His voice: “No more of this!” (Lk 22:51) and healed the soldier. The darkness—violence, uncontrolled emotions, hatred—will not bring healing; but Jesus can.

One danger of denial is the effect it has on those around us: a person who is a whirling dervish of emotion but who won’t get help or seek support, will eventually “leak” on others in unhealthy ways and damage relationships.

We cannot heal unless we take a risk: expose the hurt (to God, a trusted friend, a therapist), admit our need, and receive God’s grace. God never turns us down when we turn to Him.

I hope Mr. Hagerman is now talking to his friends about more than the weather (I wonder when he first learned about COVID-19?). Perhaps he is a happier person since November 2020. But in closing his eyes to reality in 2016, was he also denying himself an opportunity—to learn, to understand himself and others better, and to pray for or help others going through hard things?

“This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” Jn 3:19-21, The Message.

*See “Of Heresies” in Sir Francis Bacon’s Meditationes sacrae.

Scripture verses are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Images: click for source.

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