You have heard the saying, “Don’t bury your head in the sand like an ostrich.” In fact, ostriches don’t bury their heads. They lay them on the ground to swallow sand when they feed. I would like to suggest a factual and more precise metaphor for avoidant behavior. I discovered this idea when my Sheltie stood barking outside my door. I opened the door, but she continued to bark. As I tried to shut the door, it wouldn’t close completely. Stepping outside, I discovered a baby opossum, stiff and unresponsive, with its head stuck in the hinge. Using a shoebox, I transported the comatose baby to a patch of periwinkle. Eventually, it woke up and scampered off. The incident recalled a series of “doors” in my life.
In elementary school, a nun showed me the well-known picture, Christ at Heart’s Door. She said: “Jesus may be knocking at the door of your heart, inviting you to become a nun. Only you can open the door.” When I was 17, I opened that door, entering the convent during the time when Catholic communities redefined their place in the modern world. Nuns modified the habit, prayed in English and sought higher education. I loved my sister companions and my work.
When I was 30, I went to a public university to pursue a master’s degree in education. As I took classes with lay people, the lifestyle that made me feel safe as a teenager began to feel smothering. I realized that I could support myself as a competent single woman in the world. A door opened, but I closed it. My vows were promises I meant to keep.
The next year, I took a course called “Philosophies of Education.” During the course, the professor called me to his office. He said: “I’m worried about you, so I’m going to risk being unprofessional. Your philosophy of education shows that you value freedom and creativity, but your lifestyle makes it difficult for you to develop your potential and uniqueness. You must feel frustrated.” I politely disagreed and left.
But I couldn’t forget what he said. I stood at the threshold of self-knowledge and radical change, too cowardly to enter and yet unwilling to let the door close. Metaphorically, my head was stuck in the hinge. Paralyzed between “Yes,” and “No,” I hesitated. I visited the professor again. He asked: “Is it better to be good or to be real? Tell your superior what you feel.”
I took his advice not anticipating the consequences. My superior did not hesitate. “Your feelings aren’t going to change. You need to leave now while you are still young enough to make a good adjustment.”
I did what I was told because I had no choice. The inner conflict continued as I re-entered a world that I didn’t understand. Well-meaning people made suggestions that I mindlessly followed: date, get a dog, join a gym, do yoga. My confusion and misery drove me to seek counseling. Slowly, I began to accept responsibility, make choices and learn from my blunders.
For opossums, avoiding action is a survival instinct. For humans, it is not. When we avoid a choice, the life-force in us stagnates. A courageous decision, even if it’s an error, is the right survival strategy. The road to success is paved with mistakes as well as accomplishments. Think about what would happen if the door to opportunity closed or, worse yet, slammed. So the next time you or someone close to you is reluctant to act, remember this story and advise, “Don’t stick your head in a hinge.”
Janice Davin is a professional storyteller who delights audiences of all ages with stories of lasting value. She lives in Waxhaw, N.C.