Denial Is Not a River

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on February 12, 2017

 I come from Iceberg people. Iceberg lettuce, that is – possibly the blandest and least nutritional lettuces on the face of the Earth. Iceberg was the only lettuce my mother ever bought for our family.

I can imagine that her choices were pretty limited at the local A&P in the 1960s.

This was, after all, decades before supermarket produce sections exploded with what is now a mind-boggling array of lettuces – romaine, kale, spring mix, power greens, 50/50, arugula, spinach, and so on. 

But for us back then, it was Iceberg . . . every Sunday night. Along with our traditional weekly dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, Mom made an iceberg lettuce salad, laced with a few forlorn-looking tomatoes, which were also from the A&P produce department . . . the kind that came nestled in a rectangular green plastic basket, three to a pack, with cellophane over the top. For a few heavenly months in the summer, the mushy and tasteless store-bought tomatoes would get replaced with delightful home-grown ones from my father’s backyard. But the Sunday night Iceberg lettuce salad remained the same.

Not so at my Italian grandparents’ house. The vegetables in my grandfather’s immense backyard garden offered considerably more variety for salads and the dinner table in general. He grew tomatoes and carrots. Green peppers, red peppers, and little hot peppers. There were radishes, broccoli, eggplant, and squash.

And there was lettuce – not heads of pale Iceberg but, rather, bunches of bright green loose leaf lettuce. My grandma would pick armfuls of leaf lettuce from their garden. She’d plug up the white porcelain sink in her kitchen and fill it with the lettuce and cold water for a bath. The brown soil still clinging to the leaves would wash to the bottom of the sink . . . and any clinging bugs would float to the top.

If Grandma made salads with Iceberg lettuce, I don’t remember it – possibly because my salad-eating at my grandparents’ house occurred mostly in the summertime when I was there for long visits . . . and when their vegetable garden was in full swing.

I will admit that Grandma’s leaf lettuce salad, seasoned only with vinegar, olive oil and salt, wasn’t terribly appealing to me as a child. I preferred the ho-hum Iceberg.

But, I was nevertheless intrigued by her different salad and her different vegetables dishes in general. She made green beans served in tomato sauce, little bowls of peppers and onions swimming in oil and vinegar, battered and fried squash flowers, sautéed wild mushrooms, which were foraged by my grandfather from the nearby woods.

These were strange and exotic foods for me. I was used to boiled frozen broccoli spears, peas, and canned corn from – of course – the A&P.

I suppose that the variety of vegetables that my grandparents grew, picked and prepared offered me my first up-close and personal experience with Nature’s abundant diversity. Those dinner table moments let me know that a big, beautiful veggie world existed beyond the pale, the frozen, and the nondescript. Those new shapes, colors, textures, and taste enriched my childhood experience . . . and created powerful memories that continue to nurture my spirit all these years later.

Losing this amazing diversity – vegetables, animals, and living things in general – is what most concerns biologist E.O. Wilson. In his book The Creation, Wilson argues that to lose Nature’s precious biodiversity through human-caused extinction of species will lead to the impoverishment of our planet and our souls. Though it will take a long time, Wilson seems to suggest that a loss of biodiversity will ultimately consign us to a pale, frozen, nondescript Iceberg lettuce existence, if we exist at all. 

In the excerpt that David read this morning, which was written as a letter to an imaginary Baptist minister, Wilson offered this reflection:

Why do we need so many species anyway? Why care, especially when the vast majority are bugs, weeds, and fungi? [It is my hope that] people will more widely share the knowledge acquired by biologists that these often-obscure life forms run Earth completely free for us.

Each is a masterpiece of evolution. The surviving species around us are thousands to millions of years old . . . Their careless erasure is a tragedy that will haunt human memory forever.1)E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: 2006), 84.

But we’re a long way off from that, right? Even if harmful human activity remains unchecked and continues to wipe out sizeable numbers of plants and animals, some argue that it will likely take millions of years before serious damage is done. And, perhaps, along the way, we humans will have used our clever minds and devised clever means for saving the species that are still left.

E.O. Wilson has a word to characterize this type of thinking – denial. And, as the well-worn joke goes, he doesn’t mean a river in Egypt. Rather, he is referring to that persistent and powerful mental defense mechanism that enables us to avoid facing a harsh truth.

Denial tells us that we can make whatever we find painful in the reality of our lives go away if we simply fail to give it our attention. In other words, if we deny that bad things can and do happen, then perhaps they can’t and won’t.

Denial. It’s a type of thinking that has likely existed as long as humans have lived. I imagine that we all know someone who has or still does indulge in denial . . . the mother who refuses to see her son’s addiction . . . the spouse who avoids facing her failing marriage . . . the daughter who can’t concede that her father’s mental health loss is due to dementia, for example. In these cases, we might say that denial wasn’t a crime; it was a coping skill. It enabled someone to go on despite unpleasant or overwhelming circumstances.

I imagine it’s also fair to say that using denial to avoid the painful truth isn’t just for others. We’ve likely indulged in it, too. I know at times in my life I’ve looked the other way when to do otherwise would shake up the status quo and my sense of stability. Denial temporarily protected me from making hard decisions. It staved off reality and the inevitable.


However, while denial may cushion life’s blows in possibly benign ways, denial also has a dark side. When it is allowed to continue in the face of mounting destruction, the results can be devastating. This is particularly true when the pain and suffering of others is involved.

As an example, our nation denied the evils of Nazism for many years and refused to take action to save thousands of European Jews. At one point, the U.S. literally turned away a ship of 900 German Jews. Shortly afterward, it rejected a proposal to allow 20,000 Jewish children to come to the U.S. for safety. While some of these refugees were eventually rescued by other countries and survived, others perished. It was a moral failure and a lesson in compassion for the Other that still seems to haunt us.

For E.O. Wilson, continued denial about the devastating effects of human activity on species survival is a slippery slope that he believes will lead us to a bad ending for the entire planet. Wilson suggests that denial about extinction and biodiversity loss is taking the form of three questions:

  1. Extinction has happened before so why worry?
  1. Why do we need so many species anyway?
  1. And, why not collect live specimens of every threatened species and breed them in captivity until they are prolific enough to be returned to the wild?

On the surface, these questions may appear to be reasonable. However, Wilson argues that each one possesses a dangerous blind spot. First, says Wilson, not to worry about the current extinction rate is to ignore the fact that humans are having an unprecedented negative impact on the Earth.

“Except for giant meteorite strikes or other catastrophes once every 100 years or so,” he writes, “Earth has never experienced anything like the contemporary human juggernaut.”[2)E.O. Wilson, The Creation, 84.

While Wilson notes that there are plenty of species that we can’t see that are being lost, there is also plenty of biodiversity loss that we can see. National Geographic’s “Eye in the Sky” project, for example, uses aerial photography and satellites to show in vivid detail the negative results of human impact on the environment. To look at images from the sky of mass deforestation, polluted waters, and toxic haze over cities is to get acquainted with the reality that humans are changing this planet and its future like never before. 

Second, Wilson argues that to question the need for biodiversity is to fail to acknowledge that we need living things of all kinds, psychically as well as physically. Bugs, weeds and fungi, as insignificant as they may seem, are the “obscure life forms that run the planet completely free for us.”3)E.O. Wilson, 85.

He writes:

Critics usually wave aside the small and unfamiliar, which they tend to classify into two categories – bugs and weeds. They forget, if they ever knew, how the voracious caterpillars of an obscure moth from the American tropics saved Australia’s pastureland from the overgrowth of cactus; how a Madagascar “weed,” the rosy periwinkle, provided the alkaloids that cure most cases of Hodgkin’s disease and acute leukemia; how another substance from an obscure Norwegian fungus made possible the organ transplant industry; how a chemical from the saliva of leeches yielded a solvent that prevents blood clots during and after surgery, and so on . . .4)Ibid, 31.

In other words, biodiversity is saving our lives.

Finally, Wilson says to assume that we can collect wild plant or animal specimens in zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens until such time that it’s safe to release them back into the wild is to play a losing game of Noah and the ark. It assumes that human persistence and ingenuity will save the day.

The truth, says Wilson, is there just isn’t enough room for all the wild flora and fauna we do know about, let alone the species we haven’t yet discovered.

“There is no solution available, I assure you, to save Earth’s biodiversity other than the preservation of the natural environment,” Wilson writes. “Only Nature can serve as the planetary ark.”


If we might all agree that it’s dangerous to be in denial about human-driven biodiversity loss, the next question might be, “So, what can we do about?” We see how challenging it is, for instance, to convince those who deny climate change that it’s real. We witness how heart-wrenching it is to try to protect sacred native lands and precious natural resources.

Confronting denial – in others and in ourselves – is not an easy road to travel. What do we do?

My suggestion today is the same one I have given on other Sunday mornings. And that is, don’t give up! In particular, don’t give in to the false notion that you don’t have the power and influence to make a difference. That’s a form of denial that the cause for eco-justice can’t afford to have hanging around.

As people of faith who feel a moral obligation to leave Nature’s beauty, diversity and abundance for the next generation, we must combat denial out there by combating denial in here. The harsh reality we may want to avoid is that justice work on behalf our planet takes time and is often met with a variety of demoralizing obstacles.

It can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be hopeless.

My hope is that we’ll forge ahead with our efforts, however small they may seem to be. Using less fossil fuel, recycling, eating ethically, getting involved in legislative or advocacy work – whatever you can do to protect earth’s biodiversity,

I hope that you will.

Denial is not a river, but it can be a stubborn obstacle to transformation. To deny that any individual has the power to change things is to deny the power of the human spirit. We are stronger than we may think.

Let’s claim this truth for ourselves and for those who will inherit the earth when we’re gone.

May it be so. Amen.


(Photo credit: Nile River in Aswan, Wikicommons)

References   [ + ]

1. E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: 2006), 84.
2. E.O. Wilson, The Creation, 84.
3. E.O. Wilson, 85.
4. Ibid, 31.