2008-03-02

Avoidance


The more I grow and learn, the more difficulty I have in escaping the notion that we are little more than a human wrapper over a largely animal interior. Try as hard as we might to escape our base selves, that animal core is inevitably expressed at the most inopportune times. The example that has plagued my mind this week is in our attempts at relationships and the communication that they require.

I arrived at this thought after a friend made the exasperated comment about a semi-relationship: "Why can't we just tell it like it is.?" My canned (and hilarious, I thought) response was, "That's the rule. You can't tell it like it is. That would make it too easy."

Thought patently fatalistic, my trite response made me think genuinely about why it is that we're so fixedly self-destructive in relationships and communication sometimes. The most basic answer, I think, is that the animal in us avoiding pain. Sometimes its our own, and sometimes it is to avoid causing pain to others, which would in turn result in our own pain (called guilt.)

Pain avoidance is an important survival mechanism. Fearing physical pain is both healthy and natural. It is largely this fear that has kept me alive through 5 years of snowboarding, since heaving a body like mine into the air inevitable results in pain. The question though, is: how does fear of pain apply to our emotional lives? In this, is it counterproductive?

We remain in unhealthy relationships until we can no longer stand it. We close ourselves off to avoid having trust violated. We steer clear of making the first move to avoid rejection. We shun talking about our relationships to avoid unearthing grievances. We tolerate unrequited love and ambiguous friendships to avoid validating our fears that our would-be significant other does not, in fact, feel the same way we do.

In general, we somehow we convince ourselves that not being straightforward is better, that it softens the blow, lessens the shock, and that people can't handle the truth. We're programmed to avoid pain, to avoid causing pain to others, and to fear pain in general, and so this fear colors our relationships and attempts at communication. We think it's better that way, but only in hindsight do we realize that we were wrong; that we've either prolonged the inevitable or missed an opportunity.

The truth is that avoiding pain now only makes it deeper and more potent later. So why do we consistently trade some pain now for more pain later? I think it's the animal in us being blastedly shortsighted. To an animal, all pain is equally bad, regardless of source or duration. But being human teaches us that (1) some pain is worse than others, (2) all pain fades eventually, and (3) emotional pain doesn't have to leave scars like physical pain might.

If we could remember these things the next time we feel relationship anxiety swell within our chest, how much healthy and whole would we be? ... Here's a toast to being human.