by Christabel Yip
Most of us would be familiar with the story of Jonah, the prophet who attempted to flee from God’s presence. As he made his way towards Tarshish, he was avoiding the duties of his role as a prophet, and the truth of God’s mercy. We may not be running afoot from a place we are called to be physically at or a mission that God has given, but there could be a more insidious avoidance that we may be engaging in.
It is intuitive that we make choices in every day to avoid having bad experiences. We buy food that we like to eat, and we spend time with people whom we enjoy being around. We engage with things that we view as good and helpful (or at least most of the time, we try to). But what happens when we assign the labels of “good” and “bad” inaccurately, or perhaps even unnecessarily?
Facing experiential avoidance
Unfortunately at times, we do this to the internal experiences that we have. We classify certain thoughts, feelings and memories as “unpleasant” and thus, “unwanted”. And this results in us doing everything we can to prevent these experiences from occurring. In psychology, this is known as “experiential avoidance”, the phenomenon when an individual is unwilling to remain in contact with internally-aversive experiences. Whilst the act of avoiding what is difficult can provide immediate relief, it is associated with poor mental health in the long-term. We foster an unhealthy relationship with parts of life that we believe can be ignored and avoided, all the while moving further from personal goals that we know are cocooned only in the richness of life – in both the “good” and the “bad”.
I caught myself stuck in avoidance recently. I had just emerged from an emotionally-taxing season and finally, had the space and time to process everything that I went through. I knew that this act of reflecting was necessary, and more than anything, I wanted to seek God’s voice on these matters. Yet, I was praying for everything and everyone around me but viewed with dread the conversation to be had with God about the season I went through. Engaging in reflection required confronting the helplessness that I have felt with still-unresolved issues, revisiting embarrassing memories of mistakes made, and experiencing again the rawness of disappointments and frustration. I was not sure I could, much less wanted to, experience those thoughts and feelings again. They were certainly not easy to bear with, and the best thing I felt I could do was to remain detached.
Every time that any hint of the experience came up, I ensured that my attention was always occupied – with a novel, the endless stream of YouTube videos, or the daily news. Indeed, distraction can be a useful coping strategy to tide us through particularly intense periods. But they should serve only as temporary ways to reduce distress, guiding us to return to address our difficult situations thereafter. If at the core, we show aversion to a situation itself and the internal experiences it may bring, it is likely that we are engaging in unhelpful avoidance. What I was doing was to leave no possible room for thoughts to be recalled and emotions to be felt. In doing so however, I was missing out on God’s revelation.
Reflecting at retreat
In February this year, the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship (GCF) Young Graduates Ministry organised a retreat on mental and emotional care. The Loft Up Your Soul Retreat, was held from 18 to19 February 2023 at Harris Waterfront, Batam, Indonesia.
The retreat was crafted to help participants put a pause on the busyness we were used to and gain awareness and familiarity with their internal experiences. During the retreat, we slowed down and took a closer look at thoughts that we typically do not realise come automatically to us. We examined the unique physical sensations that came with the different emotions we experience. We used art as a tool to attune to what God might be saying and doing in the current seasons of our lives. In contrast to avoidance, these were intentional steps taken to be present with our internal experiences.
Turning to entertainment to suppress our thoughts or drinking to numb our feelings are a few obvious ways of avoidance. Sometimes, however, avoidance plays out more subtly. We may convince ourselves not to try for opportunities we really want so that we do not have to face our disappointments. Or we may avoid having difficult but necessary conversations with people that we deeply care about so as to eliminate any possibility of anger or sadness.
In his book Long Obedience in the Same Direction, American theologian and author, Eugene Peterson warns that “[a] common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointment by depersonalising your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment.” However, he suggests that God offers an alternative way: “There is plenty of suffering on both sides, past and future. The joy comes because God knows how to wipe away tears, and in His resurrection work, create the smile of new life…Laughter is the delight that things are working together for good to those who love God, not the giggles that betray the nervousness of a precarious defence system.”
As we dwell in the joy that God promises, let us pay heed to when we may need to avoid the easy choice of avoidance, in a bold step to honour Him, ourselves and those around us.