The Problem of Shooting at Your Foot, Hoping You’ll Miss, and Other Interesting Ways to Avoid Pain

By Keith Miller | August 24, 2009

Keith, I’ve been secretly wondering if I’m a real nut case—I’m highly motivated to do well and be a good Christian—but I resist doing things that are difficult and or will take a lot of time—even if the payoff for me will be great. I don’t tell anyone about this problem because my vocation involves complex and time consuming research and writing—which I love but which I put off and put off until I miss a deadline. Am I alone with this problem?

I don’t know how many others have this problem, but I sure do. I may wake up feeling very uneasy with a strong urge to “escape.” Suddenly, I sit up in bed, wondering, “What’s the matter with you?” As I reflect on our family life and my job, I realize that things are really going very well. We’re all healthy and have enough to eat, and no major problems are undermining the comfort of our life together. I am in the midst of writing a book. But I have the feeling that it is dull and no one will read it—or if they do, they will think I am naïve. So I will have to go through the agony of reworking the manuscript again to try to reproduce in writing the pictures which I see in my mind. And this is very difficult for me.

At this point I saw my problem. For some reason I was trying to avoid writing, the very thing I love to do. Why? As I thought back over my life, I realized that I have often avoided things I really wanted to do, just because they were difficult. I remember as a skinny little boy wanting to have a well proportioned physique. But I would do almost anything, including feigning sickness on occasion, to avoid heavy muscle-building work around our yard. I love to learn, and yet in school I avoided studying for exams as long as possible.

I said here, last week, that later, as an adult, I strongly resisted the notion of committing my life to God—for many years. Although I was strongly attracted to the idea and suspected that it was the better way, the suggestion of “total commitment” made me angry and was repelling. Such a commitment would no doubt fill my life with difficulties and force me to examine my true motivations at every turn. I was convinced that I would have to give up the normal joys and goals of living.

Throughout my life a strong desire has often forced me to overcome my resistance and try the more difficult thing: to begin doing the calisthenics, work, study in school, and finally, to become a Christian. In each case, when I chose what appeared to be the difficult course, I learned a strange truth about life: often the difficulties were actually the doorways to growth and fulfillment. Yet, I have spent much of my life, both before and after becoming a Christian, unconsciously avoiding painful and uncomfortable situations.

I realized this morning that most of the insights that have been of value to me in relating to other people were distilled from my own difficulties and pain in trying to wrestle with the problems of life. Some of these things—the conflict with loved ones, the blundering mistakes in trying to learn to pray at home—some of these seemed funny when I wrote or told about them in retrospect. But at the time I was facing the situations they were difficult, agonizing encounters from which I wanted to run—and often did.

I cannot recall a single person who has been of real help to me in learning to cope with life who has not personally faced some great difficulties or suffering in his or her own experience, even though he or she may have seemed profoundly positive and joyful.

The second thought that struck me was that the experience we call “joy” does not usually come from the trouble-free and effortless periods of life. Rather, joy seems to be distilled from a strange mixture of challenge, risk, and hope. And as I have met in groups with other uncertain Christians to share the difficulties in our families, vocations, and relations with other people and God, the effect has often been one of deep joy and insight into life—even though the difficulties themselves may not have been overcome.

But if this is true, then I should not run from the risk of difficulty and responsibility as I have done so often. I should quit trying to avoid necessary hard tasks but instead thank God for them. Because these things seem to provide the main doorways to character and firsthand knowledge about life. (I am not saying that one should go out looking for personal pain and difficulties. This tendency can be a mental sickness called masochism. It has been my experience, however, that one will find plenty of problems and pain to face just trying to do God’s will.)

My restlessness this morning must have been because I did not want to face the difficulty of writing these pages to you. But doing it has brought a great sense of peace about today. And I hope that for the rest of the day I will spend less time running from the tasks and problems that may lead me to life and wholeness.

People then should rejoice in suffering, strange as it sounds, for this is a sign of the availability of energy to transform their characters. Suffering is nature’s way of indicating a mistaken attitude or way of behavior, and… to the non-egocentric person every moment of suffering is the opportunity for growth.  Rollo May, The Art of Counseling

Where there is no strife there is decay: “The mixture which is not shaken decomposes.”

Heraclitus, As quoted in The Story of Philosophy

Father, thank You that Your Holy Spirit seems to use my hours of conflict and suffering as “teachable moments” in my life. Help me to distill from difficulties a way of living that is whole and gutsy and does not sugarcoat reality. Give me the grace not to reject those Christians whose circumstances have been such that they claim they have never personally faced fear of failure and the frustration of suffering through something difficult. Thank You that Your presence with me in my weakness often brings endurance and hope.

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.  Romans 5:3-5

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