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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Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Father, Forgive Them, For They Do Not Know What They Are Doing …

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In a few days time, those of us who hold to a faith in Christ will remember his brutal murder. Good Friday normally fills homes, halls, churches and cathedrals with people commemorating the crucifixion. I am not sure why the day is called “Good” Friday in English. In German it is called “Karfreitag” – The Day of Lament or Sorrows – which to me is a far more apt description of what transpired on this day, over 2,000 years ago.

The reason why Jesus had to die remains heavily debated amidst various atonement theories. What is not disputed amongst people of faith is the example of forgiveness that Christ modelled as he hung dying in the grotesque execution method implemented by the Romans. His words, “Father, forgive them, for they do now know what they are doing”, have been providing preachers, teachers and authors with material for hundreds of years.

The forgiveness that Christ offered from the cross towards those who betrayed and murdered him stands in stark contrast in a world that, more often than not, models itself on karma and revenge. In his last few breaths, this murder victim pleads for forgiveness for his perpetrators, indicating that they did not know what they were doing. I often think that they knew exactly what they were doing – from Judas, to the priests representing the fine religious institution of its day, to his own people, to the Roman oppressors, and finally to Pilate, they all knew they were executing a perfectly innocent man because he had upset their collective applecart.

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So what did they NOT know they were doing? Did they not know they were crucifying the Messiah? And if that was the case, and if for a moment they did realise this, would they not have been forgiven? Or did they simply not recognise their own evil? Their own shadow? Their own fear, bitterness and violence? Had the inner voice of conscience been silenced a long time ago in lieu of power and wealth so that they forgot simple things like compassion, kindness and honesty? Had they lost their souls defending the Empire?

The generosity of spirit that permits such forgiveness is confronting. When I was younger I would speak rather glibly about the necessity to forgive. I would idly banter around all the cliches and ideas, including the assertion that if you do not forgive it will only hurt you, or, the chest-beating proclamation that only “strong” people forgive. Now I am older. And I carry in my heart the scars of betrayal and wounding. I have also been the one who has wounded others. And these platitudes no longer fall off my tongue that easily.

Forgiveness, in many cases, is not that straightforward. Struggling with reprieve does not make anyone “weak”, rather it makes us recognise the enormity of letting go of the power we hold over our offender(s) (and I am not talking about letting go of justice – where a crime has been committed, justice must/should follow). Unforgiveness provides us with power. In our minds and actions we hold the offender prisoner. This power may be imaginary, but it still brings us comfort. To forgive is to relinquish this power.

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If you are anything like me you would have heard dozens of speeches on forgiveness and read even more articles or books on this topic. I am not here to outline what forgiveness is or your ten steps to reach this goal. I, like you, wrestle with this extraordinary act of the human spirit. Forgiveness is a sacrifice. The words of forgiveness, uttered from the cross so many years ago, framed the very heart of what Good Friday is all about. His words and his death were the ultimate sacrifice.

When or if we choose forgiveness, we refuse to hold on to power. The promises that accompany forgiveness ring hollow at times, they are not always guaranteed. Ultimately, we forgive because we realise that our human family is sick, wounded and traumatised because of our addiction to power and retribution … and we are tired of it. Through the example of Christ we have been offered a different path.

Easter is approaching. Whether you are a person of faith or not, it is a good time to reflect on wounding and forgiveness. What does this look like in your own personal life, your family, your tribe? The road to forgiveness is different for every human being. Ultimately it is a personal choice to take that journey. It is a personal choice to lay down your right to power and walk away …

“It Is Finished”

– Jesus – (John 19:30)

 

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