During a class I teach at university, we were discussing the results of the U.S. presidential election. My students were split down the middle on how they took the news that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President-elect Donald Trump, with Abe saying afterward that he was confident he could "build a relationship of trust" with his soon-to-be American counterpart.
Some students were skeptical or had downright negative impressions of Trump, saying that since there was still very little they knew about Trump, Japan had to be vigilant, or that they did not want Japan to cozy up to a man who had repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks during his election campaign. The other students said that for now, they were relieved.
When one of the more skeptical students asked a classmate who was more optimistic about the relationship between Abe and Trump to explain why they were so hopeful, the answer took me by surprise.
"It's not that I have a clear reason, but I just want to feel at ease," the student said. As it turns out, that student felt the same unease and anxiety toward what was happening in the U.S. But because of that, they felt that if Trump was willing to be friendly with Abe, then all the better. They were trying to tell themselves that everything was going to be all right.
I bet there are a lot of people who feel that way, not limited to the meeting between Abe and Trump. Nowadays, with future prospects so unclear, we want to believe in something just so we can have peace of mind. When we are told, "Eating this product will make you healthier," or "If you use this smartphone, you'll be keeping up with the latest trends," there's a part of us that retains some cynicism, but we want to be reassured. There's a part of us that wants to believe in something if it'll give us peace of mind, even when we believe that it is not true.
In the field of psychology, the mechanism by which people turn their backs to inconvenient truths and act as if nothing has happened is called "denial." Those who are in dire straits but are acting unnaturally upbeat are using denial to sweep reality under the rug, and hanging for dear life onto the notion that everything is OK.
There's no doubt that we experience great difficulties in life, and sometimes we have to look away from them to survive. But if we ignore everything that's inconvenient to us, we'll never find real solutions to problems. At times we have to look at the tough realities of our lives straight in the eye, accept them, and take the steps necessary to make them better.
What sort of message are we to take away from photos of a smiling Abe next to Trump? Should we be relieved, convinced that everything has been resolved? We must try as much as we can not to avert our eyes to the hard realities we face. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)