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Are you an avoider?? It's time to plow.

Forgive me for so many weeks off from blogging! The Jersey Shore held me hostage...

The right side of my brain is like an overgrown garden. Can’t you picture it? Lots of tall grass, random flower blooms springing up, small tress shooting up from seeds falling into the beds, and wild strawberry plants popping up like they are trying to make sure a garden bed stays a GARDEN bed. My mind is full of ideas, dreams, wonderings, and contemplation. All tangled together. Though I advanced in my organizational skills as a teacher, I do not have a natural bent toward administrative tasks. My mind freezes up when I try to create a spreadsheet. That’s ok, I guess. I am learning to embrace it. And yet my first response to responsibilities like taxes, medical forms, keeping track of business miles and records, is to run! I’ll cozy into my chair outside to observe the wren building his nest in my potted plant and scratch out a poem most of you would enjoy reading, all while my taxes don’t get done. Lord, help me.

After working with people, and many adolescents in their formative years, I have made an observation. We humans do one of two things when it comes to stress and responsibilities, or hardship and fear. We avoid looking at it, doing it, feeling it or thinking about it. Or, we kick up the engine and forge into the long stretch of field in front of us. In other words, we face it. And as a result we find strength, coping skills and confidence. Like the plunder from the battle, we leave with more reserve, hope and courage. I can sit back in the lounge chair of my right brain activities all day long, but if my left brain is called on to do some analytics, math, a spreadsheet or to prepare for Tax Day, I will flee the premises with Olympic speed. The love of writing is great, but it's not meant to get in the way of life’s demands.

Technology has not been helpful when it comes to our tendency to avoid stressful things. Easy access to the worldwide web has made escape a lifestyle today. Unless we are vigilant about not being distracted from uncomfortable responsibilities or feelings, we will likely scroll our way out of it. Even as I write this, my first thought when I hit a mental block is to jump to gmail and see what's waiting on me. Staying in the drudgery is a discipline we are not skilled at cultivating much anymore. We are struggling as adults and the generations behind us are having difficulty spotting what keeps them so stuck.

Here is what I have witnesses time and again in adults and adolescents alike, including myself.

The Ostrich:

Deadlines, forgotten responsibilities, an unkempt yard, a pile of unopened mail, emails not responded to, a house dirty and chaotic, too much time passing after losing a job, a car that has needed work for months, bills not paid, another assignment not handed in…

The more we avoid, the more anxious we become. Our running becomes habit.

Slowly but surely we devise a way of coping that works against us. Our default to avoid becomes hardwired into our brains and we get more and more stuck as the years pass. When we call it quits on what we set out to do, we weaken and lose our drive. Margins to handle stress become more narrow and the feeling of being overwhelmed grows in power. Anxiety builds while nothing is tackled. Sometimes we see it clearly when we notice an hour of time sucked away after scrolling for hours on Instagram or making sure to keep a Snap streak going as if it were a genuine responsibility. Social Media is an easy place to camp out as it spikes our dopamine and gives us a euphoric experience for a short time. Yet it never tends to our souls, bodies, relationships and minds.

What the avoider doesn’t typically do is self-reflect. It is a dangerous thing to live a life void of self-reflection. I often told my students that if they didn’t look at themselves and name what character flaws were beginning to take over, everyone else in their lives would be able to!

These are some simple questions to ask:

-What overwhelms me that I may be avoiding?

-Why am I getting angry so easily these days?

-How much control does my phone/internet have over me?

-How do I typically handle stress when it presents itself?

-What am I afraid to face that is gaining more power over me?

-Why do I never seem to sit still?

-What keeps tripping me up from living a full, meaningful life?

-Why are my relationships so shallow?

-Why do I shop/eat/workout so much?

-Why do I live in such fear?

When we stop and consider our lives, even though it can be difficult at first, we can make some movement toward freedom and wholeness.

The Plowman:

I envy the people who plow forward into life with confidence and courage. They believe they are capable, and they are. When they hit a road block, they figure out a way to plow through it. They are problem solvers. Distractions like TV, the Internet, daydreaming or lack of planning don’t seem to be their ongoing temptations. There is a motivation to check things off the list, get up early and work out, to make that call that needs to be made, to process the fear they are experiencing, to pull up Turbo Tax and get it done, to journal and self-reflect here and there, to take a risk and go deeper with friends. What I have noticed about people like this, is that they tend to embrace both the celebrations and hardships life will bring. They have fair expectations that life isn’t easy but it’s good.

There is a discipline required here that must be nurtured in our kids as well as ourselves. Chores, saying “no,” letting them do their own laundry, leaving the conflict with the teacher up to them, taking a package to the Post Office, cutting the lawn and spreading mulch…these are life skills. And the more our kids learn them at an early age, the more equipped will be to face the normal, daily stresses of life. Life skills build confidence. However, with total access to a cell phone or the internet, habits will form that stunt their growth. Escape will be an easy default. Grit is hard to come by these days. Less grit, more anxiety.

In the end, I think we all have a little ostrich in us and we all have a little plowman in us. The ostrich doesn’t know it, but he is just as capable as the plowman. And the plowman may find some areas he is avoiding. There are many types of ways we try to avoid life: eating, shopping, sleeping, internet, working, exercising, staying busy…all things that are not detrimental in and of themselves. We must check in with our habits is all. Secondly, if you are a parent, observe your kids. Where do the flee? What is their go-to to relieve stress? Healthy coping skills are worth more than a college degree from a certain school or a near-perfect GPA. If one can’t persevere through life’s demands, who cares if they were near the top of their class?

Trust the process. Peace will come when we sit with the uncomfortable moments. They will pass through us and in the end be the seedlings for joy.

©2020 by Dawn Poulterer-Woods