Just Get Over It: The Fallacy of Closure

Just get over it. It’s in the past, forget about it.

These are shaming, dismissive words, as advocate/songwriter Michael Skinner so eloquently points out and explores in his support work.1 We’ve all heard some version of this about a tragedy, a drama, an injustice. Like a scolding older sibling, we’ve even taken ourselves aside and told our infantile alter-egos to buck up. It’s a pop psychology anthem for how to cope with the ever-accumulating baggage we all collect if we live long enough.

Life’s baggage consists of relationship conflicts, divorce, having children, deaths of loved ones, job loss, bankruptcy, aging, and retirement, among many others. Things that happen to most of us between birth and death. We expect them to come knocking at our door at some point.

Life’s demons, on the other hand, might include: chronic incurable illness; the trauma of having experienced war, rape, torture; alcoholism, drug abuse. If we try to throw the cloak of invisibility over them a la “denial” (see my essay titled SEE NOT, HEAR NOT, SPEAK NOT: THREE FACES OF DENIAL), those demons will eventually revisit us. While denial might serve us well in the short term, it will fray and deteriorate like a cheap blanket over the long haul.

Whether we carry life’s baggage or life’s demons, we have a penchant for glibly mouthing those four little words to ourselves: JUST GET OVER IT. And poof, you're over it. Your slate is blank once again. You’re like a newborn babe, your innocence restored. Except you’re not and it isn’t. It’s just that we can tolerate a large amount of moral ambiguity. Traditionally, our Protestant culture attributes such ambiguity to the mysterious ways of God and His plan. On the secular plane, practicing law can involve a staggering amount of moral conflict and doubt. Attorney Alan Dershowitz hauntingly remarked: “...I tell my students, if you ever become comfortable with your role as criminal defense lawyer, it's time to quit. It should be a constant source of discomfort, because you're dealing with incredible moral ambiguity, and you've been cast into a role which is not enviable.” Actor Robert Redford has remarked: “Ambiguity is something that I really respond to. I like the complexity of it.” For him, the most interesting stories and characters are the ones that struggle with moral dilemmas.2

Recently I read an interview with Game of Thrones’ star Peter Dinklage, where he spoke of his dwarfism and how he feels about it. Hip and funny, handsome and sexy, Dinklage is 4 feet 5 inches tall with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. He said some days he’s okay with himself and other days, not so much. In the shallow and competitive field of Hollywood acting, it’s hard to imagine how any reductive meme about coping with his genetic condition would serve him amid the multitude of his taller, physically flawless peers. His job is to be okay enough to walk out the door every morning and hit his marks, no matter how his self-worth is tracking that day.

Law and dramatic themes strive to illuminate moral ambiguity. What we sweep under the rug, lawyers, actors and writers drag out into the cold light of dawn.

A lot of us seem to have a real dislike for disease ambiguity, especially when it’s about our own personal case. When you developed Multiple Sclerosis, did you ask your neurologist questions about the disease and your options for treatment? Did you expect your doctor to divulge all of this information without being asked—and then feel shocked, confused, stranded, desperate, and ultimately anxious about your future when s/he didn’t explain a thing? And were you downright confounded and terrified when the doctor ended your appointment with no order to schedule a follow-up with you? If you answered yes, then you despise disease ambiguity. You feel better when you have more information. In other words, you have a need for closure. The need for closure describes our desire for a firm answer to those myriad questions that fly at us, notably in the early stages of our diagnosis. If you think back, you might remember wanting simple answers and wanting them yesterday.3

Information makes you feel much more in control of your life, having all the facts necessary to make an informed decision like a responsible patient should. After the decision is made—let’s say you needed to either begin a disease-modifying therapy or switch to another one—you can then close the book on that puzzle and think no more about it. That’s a very rational scenario. It follows a linear movement forward, much like the passage of time. Unfortunately, it is a delusion.

What Kruglanski calls “Seize and Freeze” is a closing of the mind. It’s what happens when we need to stereotype other people, dogmatically adhere to religious tenets—or to be informed, unequivocally, of what’s in store for us down the road with this terrifying, mystifying MS diagnosis. As though the whole thing would be less painful to bear if we only knew. But that perception is as dubious as the hypothetical scenario of knowing the date of our demise. If we knew at what age we will die, would we live our lives differently?

We who have MS must live with an enormous degree of ambiguity, of uncertainty, without the illusion of security. The earth is constantly shifting beneath our feet, and since we cannot order the earth’s crust to be still, we must learn to step nimbly between the cracks in the bedrock.

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