AVOIDISM

I saw a guy in my trendy neighborhood rocking the perfect woolly black beard, sporting a black t-shirt emblazoned with one word in white all-caps: AVOIDISM. What a perfect word to describe just about everything these days, I thought.

Avoidism is so easy now. If somebody posts something we don’t like, there are tools to make sure we won’t see it again. It’s as simple as clicking the “Are you sure you want to block this person?” button. Poof! The icky ogre is gone.

Avoiding the icky extends to just about everything. Funerals are memorial services (“No icky dead bodies!”). News is curated (“Just give me what I want to know, no ick”). Nature is mono-cultured, with pesticides to rid us of all those pesky insects (“Insects are icky!”—I’ve known people like this). Meat comes conveniently packaged in pretty plastic packaging (“No icky feathers or fur”). I’m not saying any of this is right, but this is just the way things are, right? Avoidism is so … convenient.

I have to confess I’m as skilled at avoidism as the next person. I rarely bother with news stories I don’t want to hear. I cross the street to avoid “problematic” people. I avoid meaningful discussions on politics unless I trust the person I’m talking to is on the same page as me, so it won’t get all shouty. I’m not proud of any of this, but avoidism is a survival strategy. And it seems a lot of us are infected with the zombie avoidist bug where our desire to engage has been fried.

So what do we do to re-engage?

I could quote the Serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

And yes, this resonates. We should try to recognize what we can change and go for it, and not be foolish enough to beat ourselves up trying to change things we can’t. But I find this prayer insufficient. “Too problematic,” “Out of scope,” “Outside customary parameters,” “Not this department’s responsibility,” “Too many variables to include,” “Beyond normal risk tolerances,” “Needs further study”—our language is full of avoidist patterns of thought, serenely spoken, delivered with the ingrained wisdom that things cannot change so there’s no need to engage. But we all know things need to change.

So what do we do?

I recently read an article about Hillary Cottam, a British thinker and “social entrepreneur” renowned for her way of finding simple answers for difficult social challenges. She’s really engaged in things.

When she was at the World Bank, Cottam avoided the 5-star hotels and went into the field to figure out what they actually needed to make their lives better. In Zambia, she recommended a central pump (not a $140 million dam development as proposed). In London, she figured out that children weren’t settling down because their lockers were in a bully-infested dark corner of the school. By moving the lockers, bullying went down and academic scores went up. These sound like straightforward solutions, but it took lots of engagement to cut through the obstacles and make them happen.

So Cottam is an inspiration that there are simple solutions out there, and the people most affected already know the answers, if they spoke up. So maybe the Serenity Prayer still applies, but we need to focus on the words “courage” and “wisdom.” The courage to ask questions, imagine solutions, and speak up with the answers.

Alas, the article I link to above is negatively positioned as “There’s an idea that could transform Britain – but Brexit won’t let it be heard.” What a downer! But I found the mention of Cottam inspiring nonetheless. She is proof that there are people out there engaged with finding real solutions to real problems.