Debt and Denial

DH = Dear Husband
            We called two arborists this week and asked them to look at the sugar maple in our backyard. Both confirmed that the tree is rotting, that it’s a hazard, and that it has to come down. Our maple is at least a century old, possibly two, and a majestic beauty that towers above the house and spreads a canopy of leafy loveliness over our small yard, graciously filtering the light that comes into our home.  A rare treasure here in the suburbs.
      We’ve noticed for a long time that the tree’s branches have been dying off. DH cut down the first dead bough several years ago, but as more and more of them died – some the size of tree trunks – it became clear that a specialist would have to take a look. One day at the start of spring this year, when nobody was home, a branch fell off in a wind storm, landing with such a colossal thud at the back of our yard that a neighbour ran out to see what disaster had occurred. So it’s a sad but necessary thing. We’ve got the process in motion to have our grand old sugar maple cut down. It’s going to cost us $2,000. Ugh!
                The question is: Why didn’t we call in the arborists that day in March when it was made absolutely clear the tree was a hazard? Why did it take us until August to call in the specialists? The branch that fell would have inflicted major damage to our house if it had been on the other side of the tree. And if someone had been standing under it at the time . . .
                The only explanation I can come up with is that we were in denial. “We’ll have to get the tree looked at,” we have said dozens of times over the last few years. And since the big branch fell in the spring, we have regularly looked up at it and spotted other rotting limbs. “See that huge branch going up right over our bedroom? If it falls off, it will go right through the roof.” In a 2008 article about the phenomenon of denial in business, David Reuben and Richard Tedlow state, “. . . as so often happens with denial, the key issues are obvious in real time. They do not require hindsight” (Reuben, 2008).

Debt: A Fertile Breeding Ground For Denial

                So why the denial when it was so obvious? When we were even talking about it? The tree is lovely, and it’s got history for us, so there will be a real loss. But I don’t think that’s the main reason for our delay. In the spring, DH’s business had slowed down to the point that we weren’t able to make payments against our debt. We feared, whether consciously or not, that getting the tree looked at would entail a significant expense that we couldn’t afford. At that time in particular, such an expense would have been dreadful.  “They preferred denial,” say Reuben and Tedlow of four American tire companies in the 1960s who were dealing with the threat of France’s Michelin radial tires. “If the radial revolution were too terrible to be true, then it could not be true – because if it were, it would be too terrible” (Reuben). Likewise, it was too terrible for us to pay thousands to deal with our tree when we were financially strapped. So it could not be true – because if it were, it would be too terrible.
                I wonder how many other debt-ridden people are in denial about issues of personal safety and security?  I wonder to what extent governments and international companies are in denial about matters such as rotting infrastructure and hazardous business practices? No doubt it’s not a simple matter, and no doubt there are many reasons underlying denial, but I’m sure that debt provides a fertile breeding ground for it.

Denial: A False Peace

                In their article, Reuben and Tedlow observe Abraham Lincoln’s response to tensions in the U.S. as the Civil War intensified. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” the President said before Congress late in 1862. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country” (Reuben, 2008).
                “Disenthrall” is a great word, and while I believe it’s true that denial involves an avoidance of some type of suffering, it does not truly engender an “enthralled” state of being. There’s a lingering angst when denial is at play. And the longer the denial goes on, the more foundational its accompanying angst becomes – the more difficult to discern as it blends into the background.
                Tuesday evening, we signed papers and shook hands with the arborist who will cut down our beloved sugar maple. That night at around midnight, we were wakened by violent claps of thunder coming right on the heels of stunning lightning bolts that I swore were just outside our window. It’s been a long time since I’ve been scared during a thunderstorm, but my first response was abject terror. Was it going to happen now? Was lightning going to strike the tree and send it crashing down on us? My fear was out of proportion, but it wasn’t new. That tree has been the root of a gnawing malaise for months – even years. As much as I apparently dreaded facing the facts, paying the expense, and accepting the loss in my state of denial, I now find myself eager to have the deed done. The end of denial has meant we’ve had to face negative realities head on, but for that very reason, it has also brought with it a profound, unexpected relief. We’ve risen with the occasion, we’re taking action, and we’re going to be safe.

Ruben, David, and Richard S. Tedlow. "The dangers of wishful thinking: too many U.S. businesses (including tires, supermarkets, and information technology) havebeen infected with the disease of denial, Richard S. Tedlow and David Ruben of the Harvard Business School show. The answer? In Lincoln's words, 'We must disenthrall ourselves.'."  The American [Washington, DC] 2.1 (2008): 86+. General OneFile. Web. 10 Aug. 2013.

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