[00:00:03] Hey there. This is Dave Ursillo. And welcome back to Written, Spoken. In each installment of this first 10 episode season of my podcast, the written word comes to life through the spoken word for your listening enjoyment. Wherever you are in the world I hope these stories and essays are, as I intend them, thoughtful meditations — ideas and matters worthy of your consideration.
[00:00:24] In today’s episode we’ll contemplate an idea that has been an object of my curiosity and self-study for a long long time: Avoidance. Why is it that we avoid? And what happens when we avoid? What happens when we stop avoiding? Let’s get into the episode. Here we go.
[00:00:44] Dear friend. This is the true story of a letter: a letter that was written years ago.
[00:00:51] The letter has no date but its instructions are relatively clear. Essentially it says, “You may have inherited a serious heart condition based on the fact that members of your family are being treated for the same heart condition. We, the doctoral staff at Harvard Medical in Boston, recommend you immediately seek testing to confirm or deny that you possess this heart condition since it is potentially life-threatening. I don’t know when I first received the letter but I do know that my momma bear, diligent and ferocious a caregiver as she is to her three cubs as to her husband, has held onto it ever since it arrived at our family home in Rhode Island.
[00:01:31] Heart issues have had something of a frequent recurrence for my paternal side of the family. The slow side the “little bear” side, If you will — that’s if you’re wondering what the name translates to mean in Italian. For my father and his brother and one of my younger cousins. One such issue has persisted for years. It’s a condition of the heart that must be closely monitored if it worsens. It can be life-threatening if it doesn’t. Life can just go on as usual. When the condition was first discovered by doctors and when doctors at Boston’s famed Harvard Medical School undertook my family members as patients this letter was issued to all of our immediate relatives including me and my younger sister and my younger brother and my two big cousins and all five of my little cousins on their slow side. Much to the chagrin of my mama bear, none of us had ever really done anything about it in the years thereafter.
[00:02:26] The first copy of the letter that I received I lost I was living in Boston or maybe New York City or even Washington D.C. more than a decade ago when I got it. So I probably stuffed into a folder with other so-called important documents and told myself that I would get around to taking care of it whenever I was back in Rhode Island’s that’s where my doctors were. Since I never really stayed in Boston or New York or DC long enough to find a new doctor while I was living there. Come to think of it I didn’t do a lot of that basic stuff that you’re supposed to do when you move somewhere new. Even like update my address on my license. It was one of those many ways that I learned to not commit to a place before uprooting and moving elsewhere throughout my 20s.
[00:03:08] Flash forward years and I’ve moved back to Rhode Island this time to take a yoga teacher training to get my own apartment again and to finally commit to putting some sturdier roots down. That’s what I discovered. The second copy of the letter insistent momma there yet again offering the not so subtle reminder. Despite my deep dive into health wellness bodywork moving meditation and everything else that I’ve received from my first exploration of yoga the letter got lost again amongst other to-dos, which is to say that yet again the letter was something that I was more comfortable avoiding than I was confronting.
[00:03:46] That’s the tricky thing about avoidance. Once you get comfortable avoiding something for a short time a few days a few weeks avoiding it for longer durations like months or years or even decades feels like a total cakewalk. Avoidance is only truly uncomfortable for a short while. Before long we acclimate to the fact that we’re avoiding something that we know deep down we ought to confront or face or deal with head-on. After a while, the avoiding of it becomes a part of our story a familiar face in a sea of narratives that we feel like we can control… if we are diligent enough to corral all of the undesirable characters in front of us.
[00:04:31] When what we are avoiding becomes a familiar even comfortable component of our story the idea of confronting it feels like deliberately disrupting a well under control situation. Why dredge up an old conflict with a loved one. Months and months later even if I know I’m still brooding with resentment and anger about it. Isn’t it better to just let bygones be bygones? Why on earth that decades-old desire to write my memoir even if it was once so much a part of my passion and calling what good will it really do me now to go back into those stories. What if I undo the healing journey I’ve been on ever since. In my case what I was telling myself was why get tested for the heart condition that I’ve got a full 10 years without getting tested for. If I’ve been fined for all this time without knowing.
[00:05:25] When we avoid for long enough the avoiding gets easier. The friction of avoiding that we feel early on in our avoidance starts to dissipate. We acclimate to the discomfort. Our brains familiarize themselves with the uncertainty we compartmentalize it. We label it. We make it our own as if it’s a new toy and tuck it away into the closet of our memories for safekeeping… so we say. For coming back to a later time when we’re ready…. so we claim.
[00:05:58] In behavioral studies, avoidance has a phrase some researchers call it the ostrich effect, alluding to the image of an ostrich burying its head into the sand, which is a myth, but let’s not get into that now. Researchers have actively studied why otherwise rational logical sane human beings show tendencies to avoid receiving news or learning skills that would actually help them or even save their lives. In one study people actively resisted learning tips and techniques for developing healthier savings for retirement. By every indication, people claimed that it would cause them unnecessary suffering to change their saving and spending habits now even if it meant having more for retirement later. In another study, college students were presented with an opportunity to learn if they’d acquired a sexually transmitted disease, an STD, at no cost, at their universities. When given the choice, a majority of students asked to not receive the news for better or for worse. About a quarter of students were actually allowed by researchers to quote-unquote “destroy the evidence” — again this is in the study — so as to prevent learning about it at any future time. Wow.
[00:07:10] If this sounds like a modern phenomenon though it’s really not according to legend. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle too was perplexed by the phenomenon of human beings knowing what was in their best interests and yet acting in ways that did not advance their best interest. He was so vexed by people’s willful avoidance that he had to invent a whole new word for it. An ancient Greek a crazier or lacking command over one’s self. The only reason that I today am a teacher of avoidance helping writers creatives service minded self-starters and purpose-driven professionals turn into their avoidance to do the creative work that they feel called to do is because I have been a student of my avoidance for as long as I can remember.
[00:07:59] In fact one of my earliest memories in my life is we’re running out of my kindergarten classroom on the first day of school. I was desperately attempting to chase down my father before he reached his car in the parking lot you know showing that audacity to actually leave me there on the first day of school. Skip ahead a few years in junior high school I opted out shall we say of the first two weeks of school diligently feigning illness because of the anxiety that I felt around this suddenly adult-seeming reality that was puberty and first girlfriends and body odor and marijuana. No. It was way too much for me. So I bailed.
[00:08:36] A few years later before high school started, so did soccer practice. I had loved soccer when I was a kid and practice had only ever really meant playing and having fun. So to my surprise after a long summer as a 14-year-old playing video games and not really ever leaving the couch, I was rather humiliated when I was made to run a mile in the first minutes of the first day of soccer practice. I was sore for about what felt like two weeks. And most importantly I quit soccer altogether. After that quitting on one of my first passions as a kid and I never played ever again.
[00:09:15] Today as I write you I still have that cold gelatin goo smeared on my chest — remnants from my first ever echocardiogram. The test that I was encouraged by doctors to take more than a decade ago that I’ve diligently avoided ever since. I don’t know the results yet but regardless I’m proud of myself for facing down what I had been avoiding what would have been easier so much easier and continually easier to keep avoiding.
[00:09:43] Over time as a student of avoidance I believe that what we are avoiding is not so much a matter of personal obligation or moral responsibility. I believe that what we are avoiding provides us with the most direct and powerful transformational pathway into undoing stale habits into healing lingering wounds into transmuting discomfort into purposeful action. I believe that facing what we are avoiding is the first and only next step that we need to take towards profound self-actualization.
[00:10:22] This year I want to invite you to join me in facing down whatever it is that you feel you are avoiding to. Because you feel ready because you feel tired of the story of avoiding it. Because you trust that by facing which you avoiding. You open yourself up to a whole new world of purpose potential in positive possibility. No insistent mama bear required although they are always very lovingly appreciated. Yours in unavoiding, Dave.
[00:11:04] Thanks for listening to this episode of Written, Spoken. As you know in season 1 of this podcast we’re exploring human interest stories and personal narrative essays that I’ve written and recently published for my readers and private newsletters. If you like what you hear and want to receive these spoken word stories in their written format and in some cases up to six months sooner than you’ve heard them here. You can subscribe for free at DaveUrsillo.com/Newsletter. That’s DaveUrsillo.com/Newsletter.
[00:11:40] Next week I’m opening up with another true and somewhat vulnerable story. Make sure you listen to Episode 1 beforehand if you haven’t already. It’ll help set up some of the context of what you’re about to hear next. Until next time. Thank you for listening. I’m Dave Ursillo and this is Written, Spoken. Talk to you next week.