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It’s a well-known fact that avoidance is bad for you. Whenever we persistently avoid something we are fearful of – social interaction, for example, or travelling – we make things worse for ourselves by strengthening our anxiety and making it more likely that we’ll repeat this behaviour in the future. Gradually our world shrinks.
Avoiding anxiety-provoking things can provide short-term relief but creates more problems in the long run. This is why an established method for dealing with phobias is exposure, which involves starting to engage in the activities we’ve been avoiding, thereby changing our response to discomfort and, in turn, our overall experience.
More generally, we rightly believe it’s a good idea to confront and sort out any troublesome issues. But we would also be justified in avoiding certain things when confronting them at the wrong time is likely to lead to negative outcomes. It’s usually wise to avoid pubs for a while when you’ve just stopped drinking, for instance, or meeting someone you’ve fallen out with until you’re confident you can handle your feelings and won’t start a fight. Another example is avoiding topics with friends or partners when those involved know they’ll never agree.
It also seems acceptable to avoid things you don’t have to do until you have to do them, like not sorting the clutter in the loft until you need the space for something else or delaying your tax return until the week before the deadline. But this approach is potentially problematic, because once you acquire the avoidance habit it may be hard to recognise when the time comes to stop avoiding and start acting.
What should really be avoided is burying your head in the sand, like ignoring your toothache instead of making an appointment with the dentist. Or not taking doubts about your forthcoming marriage seriously in good time, which – as with poor Tom and Kirsty in Radio 4’s The Archers – may lead to bolting at the altar and all-round chaos. Rather than simply look away, keep your eye on what you’re avoiding, so that you’re ready to act when avoidance is no longer an option.
Philosophy, thought Nietzsche, “means living voluntarily among ice and high mountains – seeking out everything strange and questionable in existence”. In life, the “real measure of value” is in how one can answer the questions: “How much truth does a spirit endure, how much truth does it dare?”
Subtract Nietzsche’s grandiloquence and something of that spirit infuses the whole philosophical tradition. It is as though the worthwhile, examined life is held up as a counter-example to TS Eliot’s idea that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
I think there is an element of bravado in this romantic self-image. I wouldn’t go so far as to turn it round and see the philosophical attempt to impose rational order on the world as a means of avoiding its inexplicable disorder. But I do doubt that anyone is really capable of facing the universe head-on and living to tell the tale. Most philosophers are not theists and believe that there is no salvation or redemption to come. That does not mean life has no value or meaning. But it does imply one unbearable fact: no matter how many billions live good, worthwhile lives, over the course of history millions have suffered wretched existences, met horrible ends or seen all that they have cherished turn to dust. No matter how great, the happiness of others cannot compensate for this mountain of human – and perhaps also animal – suffering.
Atheist philosophers may consider themselves superior to those who turn to religion to avoid dealing with such unpalatable truths, preferring to believe that, in the long run, all will be for the good and the meek will inherit the earth. But in our daily lives, we avoid thinking too much about the meaningless suffering of millions. And who could blame us? While it is callous to be indifferent to the sum of human misery, it is impossible to truly take it all on board. So while we should not completely avoid facing the awful reality, keeping it at a safe distance is unavoidable.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email email@example.com
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