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People avoid pain--that's a safe statement. And we've figured out that some of our pain-avoidance strategies are not terrific: drinking ourself into a stupor, taking ever-increasing doses of drugs, inhaling a pound of fudge...make the pain go away, but at a price.

Or we can just avoid the pain-causing thing. We teach babies not to touch pans on the stove--both my sons' first word was: HOT! I must have taught avoidance well. Stands to reason, because I'm good at it. I avoid hot pans, hot topics, hot-button issues, and I've noticed some things about that habit.

When I avoid my way out of hot or touchy topics and situations, I cut myself off and limit my ability to function in life and relationships.

I know almost nothing about cardiology, but what I think I understand is that a heart attack cuts off part of your heart. The bigger the attack, the more of your physical heart is shut down when its supply of blood is shut off. Years ago, an elderly neighbor had a major heart attack--but the doctor's examination revealed, to our neighbor's surprise, that he had had a few attacks already, unbeknownst to him. And those small attacks had shut down small segments of his heart, for which the organ had then devised work-arounds. But with each attack, his heart had a little less functionality.

There are relationships that proceed like a series of small heart attacks. If mentioning roses makes a friend cry because her ex-boyfriend never sent her flowers, well, you may avoid that topic with her for a while till she's over the pain. That's sensible and kind. But if you have to avoid gardens, candy stores and all mention of jewelry for years, you have to decide how much accommodation is healthy for either of you.

We teach people how to treat us. If we bridle when we get interrupted, a thoughtful friend will try to stop interjecting comments when we're talking. Well and good. If we take umbrage at a laundry list of things, we teach friends to cut off a lot of their behavior, and the relationship feels like that series of heart attacks.

As my father aged he became increasingly easy to offend. He warded off discussion with biting sarcasm or barely-suppressed rage. Living at home was like living on a mine field, always aware that a false step could cause an explosion.

So we stepped carefully. We cut off pieces of our behavior, one after another, so as to always be in the safe areas of dealing with Daddy. I had been married and out of the home for ten years before I could allow a tea kettle to squeal, as the sound had been a pet irritant of my dad's. The problem became, as it always does, that more and more cuts need to be made because the pain isn't caused by the kettle but by some unresolved heart issue that will always find something to trigger it.

So we can learn to stay "safe," and get so good at it that we no longer notice what we're doing, how we're living. The price we pay is the loss of freedom and spontaneity, but that seems okay because we're "safe." Except we've confused comfort with safety. Just as peace is not the same thing as absence-of-conflict, safety is not the same thing as comfort.

"It is better to dwell in a corner of a housetop than with a brawling woman and in a wide house," says Solomon (who certainly would have known) in Proverbs 25:24. The thing about accommodating my desire for safety is that my range of movement becomes severely limited, and my heart is bounded by fear. That's no way to live.

I'm writing to encourage myself to speak up when I need to, to step up to challenges like I should, and to "keep short accounts" in my relationships. When I notice my world starting to contract, it's time to stimulate the flow of the relationship that's been pinched. Sometimes I can apologize, sometimes make a joke, sometimes I just point out there's an elephant in the living room. Sometimes a relationship needs to be cut off so that my heart won't be. These are actions we need to take if we're going to have our whole heart available to us--and we need all of our heart to embrace the task of living life.

 


 

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