You know, avoidance gets a bum rap. People talk about it like it’s a bad thing, but I can think of multiple instances in the last two days when I avoided things and doing so unquestionably made my life better. For example:

  • I drove home before a snowstorm picked, thus avoiding driving through difficult conditions.
  • I refrained from responding to an annoying comment from a casual acquaintance, thus avoiding the stress of engaging in an unnecessarily inflammatory conversation.
  • I avoided the ice cream aisle at the supermarket, thus avoiding both the physical consequences of eating ice cream and the emotional consequences of having to resist it with such immediate temptation.

I could go on, but presumably you get the idea. I am so glad that I embraced avoidance in each of these cases. The problem is when following that impulse to avoid something doesn’t actually lead to genuinely avoiding it, but instead just pushes off dealing with it.

Often that deferral is a time-based thing – putting off something that we have to deal with eventually, often with consequences to the delay. The most obvious example is financial – we don’t immediately pay a bill; eventually we still have to do it, and it’s more painful because interest has accrued in the meantime. Is it worth it? That depends on the circumstances – if you methodically calculated that you’d have the money later and the extra dough you’d shell out for interest would be worth it to have the thing/experience/whatever sooner, then sure.

The same principles of interest-accrual apply to personal and interpersonal things too, even if the currency isn’t necessarily monetary. If you’ve got a conflict to resolve with somebody and you shy away from dealing with it, often the bad feelings linger and even build up over time, making that eventual conversation a greater challenge, which can in turn contribute to the stress that fuels the avoidance-impulse. If you calculate that you’ll be better equipped to navigate the conversation under other circumstances that are likely to manifest in time, then that’s still a pretty logical choice (say, one or both of you is too riled up to talk kindly or rationally and you’re watching out for a cool-down). If, on the other hand, you’re just capitulating to the desire to avoid in response to your own stress (while the stress, objectively speaking, increases at a faster rate than your ability to manage it), then there’s a problem. The same holds true if it’s something entirely personal and internal – say an uncomfortable truth you need to process or a bad habit you know you need to reroute.

Meanwhile, sometimes deferring a responsibility does not take the form of a time-delay, but rather shifts the burden to someone else. Maybe resisting the awkward-but-necessary conversation with a loved one actually feels just fine for you, but leads to suffering for the other person. Or maybe you don’t experience direct consequences for avoiding paying your fair share at a group dinner outing, yet you are shifting the burden to one of your dining companions or to the server who ultimately gets stiffed. This realm is in a sense one of the more difficult ones to parse out because it requires taking a more holistic view of actions and consequences.

To whatever extent I try to be a person who does not succumb to less-productive avoidance impulses, it is as pragmatic as it is moral. That is, whether dealing with something in the moment makes me a better person is secondary to the question of whether doing so will ultimately require less effort/stress/strain/resources than a delay or a sloughing-off that is based on nothing more than the emotional aversion to dealing with that thing. Regardless of morality, we all want things to be easier, less expensive, less stressful, and so on, and thinking about whether avoidance is helping or whether it’s a self-defeating illusion is an important part of attaining that. I nearly constantly find myself making these kinds of assessments, as I’ve calculated that, compared to acting (or avoiding) based on impulses I haven’t examined, it ultimately saves me time, energy, and sometimes money.

I am under no illusion that Dr. King was thinking in these literal terms and am certainly leery of suggesting that his potent legacy fits neatly into into my little quasi-self-help philosophy. And yet as I have examined his effectiveness as a leader, I have been struck by how well he navigated the nuances I’m talking about here. Within a paradigm of nonviolence, avoiding the initiation of physical confrontation was utterly necessary. On the other hand, it was clear that the fight for equality (and, subsequently, for an end to warmongering) had an urgency to it that demanded bringing ugly and difficult things to a head rather than waiting for some abstractly-more-opportune moment that might present itself subsequently. In turn, the movement he led depended on people for whom that urgency was a visceral day-to-day experience and also on people who theoretically could have been passive without obvious personal consequences but recognized the moral cost of letting others carry the burdens perpetuated by inaction in the face of injustice.

While it is of course his dream and his morality and his persistence at the center of his legacy, his pragmatism in the face of conundrums like this was central to his effectiveness as an agent of change. Whether you fully agree with his vision and politics, it is important to realize that the scenarios in which he chose to avoid and those in which he chose to engage were fine-tuned for greatest efficacy and closely aligned with his goals and vision. As you take time this day/week/life to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy of love, I invite you to think about this and I wish you a life with more avoidance, less deferral, and a healthy dose of clarity as to which is which.

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