One of my favorite articles in The Onion shows a picture of a man dressed up to leave for work, with his hand on the doorknob and his ear against the door. The headline reads, “Exit From Apartment Delayed by 20 Seconds to Avoid Pleasantries With Neighbor.”
It made me laugh because I know I’ve done exactly that, many times. The article has been shared thirty thousand times on Facebook, so apparently it’s a thing for many people too. Now that I think about it, my neighbors have probably done the same thing to me.
What’s interesting is that I never really decided to do that. I never consciously thought about avoiding pleasantries with the neighbors, I just got into the habit of slowing down if I heard shuffling outside, sometimes hesitating at the door until it goes away.
After seeing this Onion article, whenever I notice that neurotic impulse avoid the neighbors, I feel silly and just go whenever I’m done getting ready. Somehow, I had made a “thing” out of having hallway interactions with the neighbors.
Because I apparently spent the last two years avoiding my neighbors, there isn’t much to these “pleasantries” when they do happen. I don’t really know these people, so there’s nothing to catch up on. I just give them a genuine “Good morning,” and go. I feel like I’ve solved a problem that never should have been a problem.
Shrinking your world
Now that it’s summer I go for a bike ride almost every evening. I live in a semi-urban area, consisting of a strip of restaurants and bars sandwiched by two grids of well-treed residential streets. I love the residential streets. They’re lined with pre-war two-storey homes, with old style trimmings and no stucco. Every night I pick a nearby neighborhood to explore and sort of meander my way there, without needing to take any particular route.
The other day I was heading to a neighborhood across the main strip, and I noticed that up ahead, the cross-street I was on passed a busy restaurant patio.
I guess I have a negative association with these patio scenes. I love my neighborhood, except for its loud, Thursday-night bar crowds that leave cigarette butts and empty bottles behind. Instead of proceeding past, I noticed myself turning around and taking a detour down a back lane.
As I was riding down the back lane I realized that I had just made a Thing out of avoiding certain streets because they require me to pass by a noisy patio. Next time I’m not going to worry about it.
It seems like this isn’t something worth thinking about. One street’s as good as another — I might has well have taken the back lane. But it seems completely absurd when you realize that this silly little aversion actually made me physically stop my bike and turn around to take the back lane instead. Obviously I’ve made this dislike of patios into something that matters, something that will put a little bit of my world effectively off-limits.
As with the pleasantries in the hallway, this kind of thing was probably happening for a long time before I was even conscious of why I took certain detours.
It makes me wonder how many other things I’ve made into Things — situations that “raise the alarm” in some way, that restrict my possibilities by making aversion the deciding factor in what I do.
We do this a lot. We make tiny aversions into long-lasting Things in our lives. If it only affected which streets you feel free to ride your bike on, it probably wouldn’t matter. But it affects big things too: what careers seem feasible to you, whether you can pull off a major goal or not, how healthy you can expect to be, how happy you can expect to be. When you let aversion call the shots once, it can quickly become the new norm.
A Thing is a wall. It’s a location in your day-to-day life where you now have to change direction, because you let it become a Thing. The most direct route, you’ve determined, is no longer a real option for you.
The fewer things you let become a Thing for you, the more freedom you experience. You probably know people who make a Thing out of nearly everything, and you probably know people who seem to be able to do almost anything without much trepidation.
For certain stretches of my life, I made a Thing about activities that I now consider vital to my well-being. In particular, I’ve made a Thing out of writing. It was always a fight, even though it’s something I need to do. It’s much less of a Thing than it was, but still a bit of a Thing.
I also made a Thing out of exercise for many years. I always approached it with resisting and bargaining and dreading. Now it’s really not much of a Thing any more, and I’m actually fit for the first time in forever.
This mostly happens under the radar. We feel and act on aversions without even noticing why we’re taking a little detour instead of going the more direct way. I had no idea I was scared of my neighbors, just like back in college I probably wasn’t conscious of the limits I had placed on how happy I could expect to be.
But sometimes — when you’re about to not answer the phone when a certain person calls, or when you’re about to leave the dishes for tomorrow — you can catch yourself and decide that you’re not going to make a Thing out of it this time.