What the Sound of Metal Can Teach Us About Denial and Acceptance
SPOILER ALERT: There will be spoilers.
If you haven't seen this film, I highly suggest watching it. It is available on Amazon Prime Video.
In the film Sound of Metal, the protagonist Ruben, a sober drug addict and metal band drummer, experiences a rapid decline in his ability to hear until he becomes deaf. When Ruben first realizes that he is losing his hearing, he experiences a great deal of emotional distress. Ruben's girlfriend and bandmate, Lou, is concerned and calls Ruben's recovery program sponsor, Hector. Hector refers Ruben to a program for deaf and recovering addicts. Meanwhile, Ruben learns of a medical procedure involving hearing implants that may be able to restore his hearing.
Ruben consults with the program director, Joe, at the rehab for the deaf. While there, Joe tells Ruben "We're looking for a solution to this [pointing to his own head], not this [pointing to his ears]." Ruben is adamant about getting the hearing implants and chooses not to follow through with Joe's program.
Lou eventually talks Ruben into staying at the rehab, although he is still set on getting the implants. Ruben realizes it will take a significant amount of money for the implant surgery and begins selling his belongings. While at the rehab, Ruben experiences moments of connection and joy with his fellows. Eventually, Ruben ends up making enough money for the surgery and proceeds to have it done.
After the surgery, Ruben has to wait a few weeks before the hearing implants can be activated. Joe no longer allows Ruben to stay at the rehab as deafness isn't viewed as a disability there, and Joe must do what's best for all the members of the program.
Ruben gets his implants activated and the result is not what he was hoping for; his hearing is muffled, distorted, and uncomfortable. Ruben then visits Lou at her father's home in Belgium and realizes that neither Lou nor Ruben will be resuming their prior lives in music. Realizing their lives will never be the same, Ruben decides to leave in the morning while Lou is still asleep. As Ruben is walking, he experiences the uncomfortable and distorted sound of the implants and chooses to remove the implant's transmitters from his ears. At that moment, he gets in touch with a type of silence he has never known.
This film made me think of a portion of Jonathan Grayson's book Freedom from OCD. Jon writes:
Imagine that you've lost your arm in an accident. Obviously, you would rather have both arms, and there would be times when you miss your arm, but how would you want the many years ahead of you to be? Do you want to compare every moment to how much better it would be if you had two arms and, in so doing, ruin every moment of your life? Or do you want to find a way to live the best one-armed life you can? I suggest choosing the second option, because what you really want - two arms - is no longer an option.
In Ruben's case, he wants, or at least wanted, his old life back. He wanted to play loud metal music with Lou again. Ruben went to extreme measures to try and make that happen, including selling his music equipment and RV, but he wasn't successful. Jon Grayson presents the concept of denial not being an unwillingness to acknowledge what has occurred, but rather a wishing for things to be different than they are. Was Ruben in denial? Possibly. I don't blame Ruben for trying to have his hearing restored. After all, it was really only one attempt. If I lost my hearing and I knew people received surgery to attempt to restore it, I'm sure I'd do the same thing. If Ruben made numerous attempts to restore his hearing, then would he be in denial? Possibly. The issue with denial is that it can be a highly private event. Meaning, people can't always see it in us. I like the example of playing the lottery; sure, we spend a couple of dollars (repeatedly) for the possibility of winning big, but for most of us, the entirety of our wellbeing isn't dependent on whether or not we win. In other words, we can find contentment with the way things are now and still pursue something we perceive as being "better." This begs the question, can Ruben be in acceptance with his deafness and still pursue regaining his hearing? Or must he give up trying to regain his hearing in order to be in acceptance? I'm not sure there's a clear answer. I suppose it would depend on how attached he would be to an outcome, and the extent of the expectations he has created. As my friends and I like to say, "The road to disappointment is paved with expectations." It's okay to have expectations, but the entirety of our wellbeing mustnt be contingent on them.
We aren't sure what decision Ruben makes after the end of the film, however, it appears he has grown tired of trying to hear as he once did, and moves toward accepting his new deaf life. Acceptance is not always a pleasant experience. Acceptance is really something that prevents further suffering, but it may still hurt. Denial is created on conditional terms. For example:
Life would be so much better IF my husband were still around.
IF I had more money THEN I'd be happier.
While the above examples may very well be true, the fact of the matter is our husband isn't here, and we don't have more money. Our mind is setting us up for disappointment because the condition for something better is set on something that we don't currently, or may never, have. Acceptance may look like this:
My husband isn't around anymore. That really hurts, but I can learn to make the best of the life I have even though it may not be ideal.
I may never have as much money as I'd like, but I can begin thinking about how I will try to make the most of my life given the circumstances. I can pursue making more money, but my life doesn't depend on it.
Acceptance involves loss and making the best of a situation that is probably not our ideal. The Sound of Metal is a good metaphor for the concepts of acceptance and denial. A man who once relied on his hearing for his passion must now come to terms with probably never being able to live the life he once did. A Ruben in denial would allow the loss of his hearing to be the CONDITION for which he cannot enjoy his life. A Ruben in acceptance will realize his hearing doesn't have to be the only factor determining his life satisfaction; he can choose to pursue enjoying his new deaf life even though it is not his ideal life. As Jon Grayson would say, he can learn to make do with "second best."
Oftentimes, the problem is not the "actual problem." When Joe said to Ruben, "We're looking for a solution to this [pointing to his own head], not this [pointing to his ears]", Joe was saying that the problem isn't Ruben's loss of hearing, but rather how his mind copes with the loss. However, to Ruben, the problem IS his loss of hearing, and he is willing to do just about anything to get it back. We can pursue recovering our loss or preventing a loss, but the real challenge is not attaching too heavily to an outcome, or wishing so badly things were different that we cause additional suffering. Does Ruben HAVE to get his hearing back in order to enjoy life? Perhaps Ruben could enjoy life more with his hearing, but he may also be exposed to a life that he would never be able to appreciate if he never went deaf. The latter is not his ideal situation, but it is his reality.
Consider something/someone significant you've lost in your life or something painful you've received. Perhaps it is the loss of a family member, a spouse, friend, pet, job, or home. Or perhaps it's experiencing a physical disability, anxiety, depression, OCD, etc. Have you accepted the loss and/or pain? Or is your mind telling you life would be so much better IF............? Can you learn to enjoy life despite your loss and pain? If not, why? If yes, have you started?
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in life. Just because treatment for a wide array of conditions exists, it doesn't mean they will work 100% of the time. Is our entire life dependent on ensuring treatment works? Or can we learn to make the best of what we have while we find out whether or not it works?
This is not to say that you shouldn't feel upset, sad, angry, anxious, or any other emotion. Rather, can we stop wishing for things to be different than they are? Can we allow our pain to coexist with our values? Can we pursue what's important without attaching too heavily to an outcome?
As with many things in life, MUCH EASIER SAID THAN DONE. It is a process and a journey.