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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Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. 
– Martin Luther King, Jr. –
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The book of Job has always fascinated me. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament and most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, it is dominated by two main characters: Yahweh and a wealthy man called Job, who faced utter devastation. The book is loosely divided into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. It is a book that raises questions about suffering and directly challenges the idea of karma – that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.

It is a book of poetic and philosophical depth and beauty. It is a book of suffering and grief. It is also a book that provides an example of how to be a really annoying friend. After Job loses everything, his friends come to ‘comfort’ him. They do well at first because they shut up. However, when Job begins to speak they never really hear him or seek to understand. They simply pontificate their opinions on his suffering and try to fit him into their little boxes of comfortable reasoning. Nothing much has changed … humans just don’t evolve that quickly ?

Eliphaz is convinced that Job has done something sinister to deserve this pain. Bildad suggests that maybe his deceased children were guilty of evil. Zophar really has no idea but is convinced that God has a plan and is on the throne (sound familiar?). Elihu, the zealous youngster, thinks that maybe Job is just a tad arrogant and that his pain is God’s way of humbling him and he will be a better person because of it. In summary, this is a group of Shit Friends or ‘worthless physicians’ as Job refers to them. People who practice triumphant monologue, provide unhelpful answers (accusations) or cliches, and are in on the ride because they cannot cope with the existential angst of not knowing why bad stuff happens to good people. Yes, we have all been in the presence of Job’s friends. We all have been Job’s friends.

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Disappointment is the cousin of grief. Disappointment is tied to our expectations. Our expectation of people, of events, of God, that is if we happen to be someone who holds a faith. When they do not ‘behave’ the way we expect, we become disappointed. Job was disappointed because he had spent his life in faithful devotion to God, expecting God to protect him, and yet disaster and suffering entered his life. He was disappointed in his friends because in the time of his greatest need they were … well they were just shit friends.

There are many lessons we can draw from Job. One would be that the questions we often ask about theodicy seem to have no satisfying answers. Another is that suffering is part of the human existence and disappointment is part of life. We can also learn how not to be a friend!

We will all face disappointment in our life time. If we happen to be one of the people to walk alongside another as they face disappointment, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let’s stop pretending that we know exactly what they are feeling. We don’t. We  may be able to empathise to a certain degree, but we have not lived their life, walked a single step in their shoes, and we have no idea how exactly they are processing the disappointment that they are facing.
  2. Let’s learn to shut up and listen. If we are genuine about being an ‘alongsider’, then let’s be a sounding board. Don’t let’s use our friend’s pain as a soapbox to practice our philosophical or religious ideals. It’s like rubbing salt on a wound. The greatest gift we can give at that moment is to listen deeply.
  3. We are not the Messiah – and that really is good news. There is an innate urge in each of us to ‘fix’ things and people. The reality of life is that there are some things we can ‘fix’ and many things that we can’t. Mindfulness, kindness, practical expressions of love are most helpful to those facing disappointment. Job’s friends failed at these. Like Christopher Pyne, they were ‘fixers’ – and both Job and Yahweh grew weary of them.
  4. Walking alongside needs us to deal with our ego. People facing disappointment will be angry, grieving, sullen, and maybe rude. If we are in a support role and have not done some serious shadow-work we will find ourselves ‘hurt and offended’. Then the person who is facing crisis now has to deal with our wounded egos … Nicht Gut.
  5. Let’s practice our theology at these times, not preach it. Love in action is the best sermon we will ever preach. The day may come when we will be facing disappointment and will discover how annoying it is when someone, oblivious to our heartache, gets all “God-is-on-the-throne-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life” on us. In moments of deep disappointment we won’t really give a crap about anyone’s ideas about God, rather make “me a cup of coffee and feed me chocolate”.

Job faced bitter disappointment. We will also have to handle our fair share in our short life. And when we are comforting those who are disappointed let’s not add to their burden by being shit friends like those of Job.  Bake that cake, cook that meal, mind those children, and let’s learn to listen …

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