The Avoidance Crisis

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

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Last week I blogged about death and how we live in a society that avoids this subject to the point of delusional insanity. The response was overwhelming. What became clear amongst the many messages I received was that our collective existential angst has created a social and cultural avoidance crisis. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that life can be very painful and challenging and that we have very little control over it.

Avoidance has helped us cope and survive in life. We naturally choose the path of least resistance to escape danger or suffering. Our early childhood lessons were often about learning what, or who, to avoid in order to make it to adulthood. We have an inbred protective reflex when exposed to adverse stimuli and that is beneficial – unless it becomes driven by anxiety.

Anxiety can cause us to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats, but often these very threats are important life experiences. We may think avoidance is a cure, not realising it can actually heighten our distress. We begin to be consumed with the very thing that we are trying to avoid. There are many examples of this. People suffering from eating disorders trying to avoid certain foods, so food and calories become their obsession. People suffering from social disorders trying to avoid encounters with others and feeling continually panicked. My previous blog on death discussed our society’s avoidance of talking about death, underscoring a primal fear that drives us to all sorts of unrealistic beliefs or behaviours, both in religious and social settings.

Mark Manson’s quote above is so accurate: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.” The more dogmatic and hostile we become in areas of our lives, the more we are struggling to avoid something unpleasant, perhaps a shadow side to ourselves. It’s an internal struggle and a form of suffering. That is why vulnerability is such an important transformational tool. When we learn to be vulnerable we begin to recognise that avoidance is not the answer. In fact, avoidance comes at a very high price as we barricade ourselves from life’s inevitabilities and our own flaws.

Facing our fears takes courage. In a society that is caught in an avoidance crisis as it pursues experience after experience to feel ‘better’ or ‘happy’, it takes guts to stop, reflect and become counter-cultural. We need to learn to build our tolerance to things that are challenging, painful and uncomfortable. It is in the full embrace of life, with all its ups and downs, laughter and tears, that we experience what it means to be truly human and to build relationships that are genuine, healthy and have longevity.

Dear reader, take a moment to think about your life. Are there areas that you are avoiding that desperately need your attention? Are you sidestepping conversations because even though they are important and should not wait any longer, you know they will be difficult and awkward? Are there shadows you need to face that you have denied?

Avoiding avoidance is risky. Will it all go well when you stop running and turn around? I don’t know. “It all going well” is not what life is about. Life is raw, risky and at times filled with peril. We become vulnerable and our Jenga blocks, sometimes built on lofty ideals and a protective guise, can all topple over … and then we have to rebuild … one honest, humble, vulnerable block at a time …

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing –

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Want to Walk the Road Less Travelled? Get off the Success Treadmill!

Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost – 
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The ‘road less travelled’ is an alluring and romantic notion. It’s the idea that we can take steps out of our secure boundaries from time to time and feel like a dare devil. If this venture goes relatively well we may try it again and we may even become ‘heroes’ or ‘courageous’ in the eyes of others … until we fail!

The fear of failure keeps the masses at bay. It is one of the most powerful tools of rhetoric, regularly accessed by political and religious leaders. Everyone wants everything to be ‘great’ – we want to make everything great again. Triumph, success, adulation – the opium of the masses of the developed world.

In the faith tradition that I embraced like a zealot in my first half of life, triumph was the goal. We were encouraged to step out in order to ‘walk on water’ or ‘break the boundaries’ or ‘slay the giants’. ‘Live on the edge and God will bless you’ was the modus operandi. If you bought into the persuasive, manipulative garble of some, you would be convinced that only success matters. You will eventually become wealthy, healthy and wise. You will not fail.

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The fear of failure is a tenacious force in many social structures, especially modern Pentecostalism. Failure, for many, would be a sign of God’s disapproval. It would be a given that if you took a step into the unknown, into a path of ‘faith’, then God is obliged to ‘bless’ you. The thought of not being ‘blessed’ can seriously risk your status, identity and belonging in these religious social groups. That thought is simply awful. That’s why it remains a ‘road less travelled’.

But what, if just for a moment, we would consider that failure, just like grief, sorrow and disappointment, is really not our enemy? What if we were to grasp that the success-treadmill-mentality that lies so deeply embedded because of a thousand different clever messages thrown at us every day, that this treadmill can be abandoned? What if, despite the disapproval of our community, we adopted a sort of quixotic lunacy and fight for what we believe, even if it means failure? How would we live then?

Perhaps it is time to take another look at this perceived, scary fiend called ‘failure’. What if we were to have a cup of coffee with failure and discuss some of our deepest hopes and dreams? We may come to realise that making failure a friend allows us to live life in a manner that evades most – with the freedom to pursue the most difficult of dreams because we value them more than success.

If we only act because there is a great likelihood that we will succeed then we will live relatively safe, confined lives. And perhaps that is satisfactory to many. But I find that the success treadmill is a constraint when we want to live from a place of value and ethics because the success treadmill creates constant value transgressions. The value of my endeavours cannot be determined by the odds of success. I have to face the fact that negative consequences may be a result of my most daring adventures. And that’s ok!

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So can I suggest that you investigate your relationship with failure. As an only child and a One on the enneagram, mine is a rather precarious one. However, I am learning that failure is not my adversary, no matter what the success-addicted crowd thinks. In stark contrast to popular opinion, I am finding that the more I embrace this strange companion, the more I live life from the inner sanctum of authenticity and freedom.

Remember, dear friend, there are many lofty goals worth far more than success – pursue them!

“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.” – Elizabeth Gilbert – 
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2017: The Year of Discernment

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” 

Parker Palmer

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It is probably a good thing that we are extremely limited in seeing our future. We can make all sorts of plans and set ambitious goals, yet we have to constantly live with the reality that we never quite know where the path of life will take us.

I did not know that 2016 would be a year when my premonitions of ‘letting go’ would culminate in a thousand goodbyes. A relocation to the Sunshine Coast brought this home like Thor’s hammer. As my partner and I recalibrate and look ahead, while at the same time dealing with the heartache of saying goodbye, a friend helped me shape language and perspective around 2017. It is a year of discernment for us. This blog is written for people on a similar path.

Discernment is an ancient practice that finds it’s origin in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the belief that humans can seek divine guidance through the process of discernment. We see this practice through Sacred Text and in the ways of the early church fathers and mothers. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are an example of a discernment process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. For a historical overview on the ‘History of Spiritual Discernment’ please see Greg Caruso’s blog post.

Regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not, discernment is something we implement regularly in our lives. We may not always recognise this. Every day we have a multitude of voices and invitations pulling us in all directions. We have been shaped by these voices – for the good and the bad. Part of the process of discernment is taking time to silence our noisy world, take out our compass, and find out what direction we are going and whether we actually want to keep heading that way. This takes discipline and, as I am finding out, great courage. To sit with ourselves for an extended period of time and really delve into our past, present and future, can be a most terrifying and lonely experience. It can also be one of the most liberating and life-giving exercises we can do for ourselves.

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Our lives speak to us … and we can choose to pay attention. In a frantic world we take little time for discernment and we end up telling our life how it needs to be lived, instead of listening deeply. The result is that our lives are not integrated with who we really are. This is what happened to me in a staff leadership role I once held at a church – I simply adopted some of its dogmas and practices without question. My Jenga blocks started tumbling when I recognised that some of these ideas did not integrate with who I was and what I understood as the gospel of Christ. This discernment process took time and the subsequent actions required were painful – but I can truly say that I am so profoundly grateful for that journey. Reflecting on it gives me hope for 2017 as we again come to a place of stopping the noise and listening.

It is easy to seek guidance from everything and everyone except from within. We desperately look for life purpose or vocation as something that needs to be hunted, conquered and achieved, instead of recognising that it is a gift given, waiting to be discovered. Listening to that quiet voice within helps us understand who we are at our core. Discernment is a practice that helps us re-discover this quiet voice.

So, for my friends on a similar journey – take time to listen. There are some fantastic resources available on the art of discernment and listening. Invest time and value into this important process. There is a kingdom within you that has the ability to nourish, not just yourself, but many others. May you find that space.

“The art of awareness of God, the art of sensing his presence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand. God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp them.” 

Abraham Joshua Heschel

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