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Bite Your Tongue 

The experts say repression works, but is it the best strategy for getting through life?

Amid the modern day swirl of snipers and terrorists who leave death and trauma in their wake, researchers are offering some new advice for those of us touched by the tragedies. New strategies for those of us wondering how to get back, or at least get on, with life as usual.

"A stuff upper lip," say social research scientists from Tel Aviv University in Israel, "is better than counseling." Once again I'm reminded that pendulums need to swing, of the impossibility of having a one-sided coin. The Beatles without the Rolling Stones. Hollywood without Harlem.

Anyway, our pat response to large-scale tragedy has been to send in the counselors, waiting only a beat or two for police to secure the scene and for media to string their wires. We've been told it's best to talk about these things, to air your feelings and debrief in the presence of professionals trained in rephrasing client comments as questions and the importance of victims being able to "say more about that."

That's great. After all we have invested in the rituals of therapy and counseling, some upstart researchers are now telling us that we're better off bucking up, getting tough and getting over it. General Patton would be pleased.

Two words from these researchers struck me hardest and stuck with me longest. "Repression works." These researchers are suggesting that, for victims of post-traumatic stress, repression works every bit as well as professional counselors and their protocol of debrief, diagnose and treat.

It isn't surprising that someone would say repression works as a response to traumatic tragedy. What is surprising is that we needed a research project to support it. Repression works? Of course repression works. Most of us have been perfecting and relying on that strategy to get through every day. To get through our lives.

Repression always works when the goal is to just get through things. It works whether the thing you're getting through is a crisis, a church service, a career or, for that matter, your life. Thoreau said that he didn't want to meet his death and suddenly realize that he had not lived. Obviously, no researcher ever sat Thoreau down and laid out the benefits of repression. Or explained to him that, when the going gets tough, the tough repress.

Hundreds of times each day, in every setting and surrounding, we repress the chance to respond authentically from our core. Hundreds of times each day we abort our soul, trying to be born and launch itself into the world. We bite our tongue; we play the game; we choose repression rather than life.

You remember the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. If not, ask your kids. This is a story with the clear message that repression works. That repression is encouraged through all the "shoulds" and "oughts" in our lives. You can tell this story is a fairy tale because, thanks to a "foolish" little kid who refuses to repress his truth, the town wakes up to the truth within in them and throws off the cloak of repression.

In real life, that kid would have been stoned. Or at least sent to the principal's office, run out of the company or excommunicated.

Anyone who makes a life of not repressing themselves, of not saying they are clothed, or fed or fulfilled when they are in fact not, will always be taken for a fool. Anyone who brushes aside the "shoulds" and "oughts" when they get in the way of authentic self-expression will be thought of as dangerous and a threat.

If you don't believe me, try this. The next time you're in a meeting, and you hear that still, small voice inside you whisper, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about and this whole thing is a waste of time," try standing up and saying it out loud. Do it and see what happens.

Once, I was in a meeting with a bunch of fellows poring over numbers and data that I know no one wanted to hear. At one point, we took a break for inspiration and someone read a quaint little poem about smelling roses, looking at clouds and why we shouldn't turn down dessert on the Titanic. It was sort of a new-age revisit of Thoreau.

After the reading there was a kind of strained, uneasy quiet that seemed to hover over us much longer than the few seconds in actually lasted. Then, the group returned to its work, its numbers and its previous mood. The elephant returned to the shadows, after being glimpsed if not seen clearly.

Repression works? Just look around you. You can see it working in the faces of people walking the streets and driving the freeways, spending their days and lives on auto-pilot.

Once, we had religion to free us from repression. At its best, religion is training wheels we strap on until we're sure of our truth and our souls have learned to run. Now, religion has all too often fallen in step with the parade marching under the "repression works" banner. Part of the crowd who will gather around death beds, looking into the eyes of those who have come to their death and found that, while they may not have lived, they certainly have gotten tough, gotten on and gotten through.

More by Jim Grossman

  • Silence is Golden

    Take time to hear the stillness within, and keep the internal dialog going.
    • Feb 13, 2003
  • Know Thyself

    Forget more school books; our children need to learn about themselves.
    • Jan 30, 2003
  • Damage Control

    Religious organizations try to fix their mistakes, but should we join them again?
    • Jan 16, 2003
  • More »

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