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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Scars Sealed In Gold

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be effort, and the law of human judgment, mercy.”
– John Rushkin –

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It seems that “banishing imperfection” is the obsessive past time of our modern society. Current ideas about beauty, success, wealth or piety become enshrined upon the golden altar of desire and happiness that the faithful flock to. Perfection is the ultimate goal. It is celebrated and rewarded. Individuals or groups who achieve this rare state are paraded around platforms, their voices filling our sound waves, their images filling our screens, and their formulas filling our bookshelves. It is a lucrative business to be perfect. No wonder we are living in such an epidemic of human anxiety and fear as the banishing of imperfection is not working out that well for 99.99999% of us!

There are many reasons why we may crave perfection. Perhaps the fear of vulnerability is one of the greatest? When we are vulnerable we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection. Vulnerability is risky. Vulnerability destroys the enshrined ideas of perfection. When we choose vulnerability we choose courage instead of fear, authenticity instead of image, and the messiness of what it means to be human, instead of perfection. Vulnerability takes a sledge hammer to the golden calf of perfectionism that reigns supreme in our political, religious and celebrity spaces, and in our own lives.

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I am someone who, especially in my first half of life, struggled with the constant need to get it ‘right’. The fear of failure or not being the ‘good girl’ left me open to all sorts of dreadful possibilities. Ones on the Enneagram are known for our often unhealthy relationship with perfectionism. Over the years it has been crisis and wounding that have served as my faithful and undesirable coaches, calling me out of this unhealthy obsession. Like Rushkin (and my parents) would say, life is not easy. We live with effort and we all need mercy and compassion, not just for others, but most often we need a healthy dose for ourselves.

There is a Japanese philosophy of ‘wabi sabi’ which compels us to consider the beauty in the flawed. It is hinged to the Japanese feeling of ‘mottainai’, the regret of seeing anything wasted. In other words, in Japanese thought the idea of suppressing something that has happened because it is considered painful, a failure or imperfect, is a total waste. There is something beautiful in life’s imperfections. It is this philosophy that undergirds the art of ‘Kintsugi’, of mending broken pottery not in a way that makes the breaks invisible, but rather highlights them with gold.

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These exceptional pieces of art are not only beautiful because they are crafted by a master potter, but because their imperfections are displayed for the world to see. In a sense, Kintsugi art is a celebration of scars. What a totally different philosophy than the angst-inducing ones that permeate our modern culture.

The idea that we can eradicate imperfection is a futile one and the pursuit of perfection is ultimately meaningless. Consider this in light of ‘body image’, wealth, work, religion, and the expectations of modern life. Humans are not meant to be displayed as a piece of perfect pottery on some grandstand built on cultural, religious or relational accolades. We were meant to live life to the full – to love, to embrace, to listen, to consider, to risk, to fall, to fail, to triumph, to trudge through valleys and to scale mountains. In order to do that we need a huge supply of special golden lacquer so that we can take time to highlight our story when the cracks appear.

So, dear friend, stop listening to the voices from without and within that demand your perfection. Take the risk of becoming vulnerable. You may lose some ‘friends’ and no longer sing in the choir of the impeccably dressed, or stand on the platform of the piously accomplished, but rather you will join the crack pots on the margins, with their bucket loads of gold lacquer … and there you will find grace beyond measure.

“There is a Japanese word, kintsukuroi, that means “golden repair.” It is the art of restoring broken pottery with gold so the fractures are literally illuminated – a kind of physical expression of its spirit. As a philosophy, kintsukuroi celebrates imperfection as an integral part of the story, not something to be disguised … In kintsukuroi, the true life of an object (or a person) begins the moment it breaks and reveals that it is vulnerable.”
– Georgia Pellegrini –

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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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The Broken Birch


“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” – Parker J. Palmer

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Spring has come to the world’s most liveable city. You would be forgiven for doubting this. As I write, Melbourne is in the throes of arctic-like weather conditions and it is pouring down gallons of water that are creating havoc across the State. But when you look outside, Mother Nature calms our fear and produces the evidence – Spring is here! My garden is thriving. Amongst the many plants bursting with new life is a tree that stands taller than all the others: a birch with a peculiar story.

When we moved into this house we had many generous people give us plants to help establish this ginormous garden. We also kept our eye on any nursery ‘specials’. We planted a small birch grove because a nursery was shutting down and they were selling birches as part of a ‘super’ special. They also gave us a birch for free. Someone had accidentally broken it whilst moving it to a new spot. It was a quarter of the size of its birch brothers and sisters and frankly, looked miserable.

In hindsight, birches were not the best choice for clay soil, but hindsight is not always helpful. Our birches struggled to establish. They needed extra tender loving care in those hot summer months. Except for the broken birch. We all expected it to die. It did the opposite. Defying birch-law, clay soil, brokenness and the misery of its tribe, it grew and flourished. Within three years it outgrew its birch siblings. Today, it is a magnificent tree that provides shelter to so many other plants. It is easy to forget that this was a broken birch once …

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You see, friend, in life you will face many circumstances and situations that will cut you off at the kneecaps: personal failure, the betrayal of friends, financial hardship, death of a loved one, illness, loneliness, changes – the list goes on. When you walk through these shadowed valleys it may feel like everyone else around you is standing tall, growing and flourishing. Everyone else, but you. You feel broken on the inside and no amount of positive thinking and meditation seems to cure that nagging pain within.

There are many times in life that we are that broken birch. It’s no use trying to tell ourselves some pseudo-narrative to dull the pain. There is no way ‘around’ these valleys. We have to learn to walk through them. Religion that calls you to growth without suffering, without pain, without heartache and without experiencing brokenness is no true religion, but simply a decorated band-aid for grievous wounds. In life you will experience brokenness.

Just like my birch, you may also find yourself planted in places that are less than ideal. Environments that should hamper your growth and well being. But my broken birch tree didn’t seem to take that much notice of that. It grew anyway. The environment was not its defining moment or its core identity. The reflection I take away is that sometimes we simply have to ignore the masses and the circumstances, put our head down and grow anyway. The opinions and ignorance of others does not define you.

In the end, dear friend, only you can live the life given you. And you have been assigned to live it amidst all the ups and downs and ‘accidents’ that come your way. Only you hold the integrity of your narrative. Only you can tell your story. No one else. People may try. They may refer to you as that ‘broken birch’. Don’t argue with them. Smile and wave and get on with your life. And when your inner core and strength overshadows their fear and judgement, show them much kindness …

“The Wound is the Place where the Light enters You” – Rumi

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