By Leo Babauta
Over the last week, my family and I moved to a new home, away from San Diego and into the suburbs east of Los Angeles (to be near family). As usual, we did all the moving ourselves, and it was exhausting!
We don’t have a crazy amount of stuff for a family our size, but all of our furniture seems to be made of incredibly dense, heavy wood. Even with three strong sons helping me move, we were all wiped out after one day of loading a huge moving truck, and another day of unloading.
Sore and tired, to the bone.
I’m still recovering. But I have to say, this deeply tiring physical work was a time of joy for me. It was stressful, my body suffered, it wasn’t easy or comfortable. But some of the best experiences can have all of that, mixed in with satisfaction, appreciation, and joy.
You pour yourself into something, and are completely present. It demands all of your focus, and you aren’t running to distractions and comforts. You have to take on difficulty, overwhelm, and stress — so you just accept it, and do it without complaint or looking for the exits.
How can we create that in our daily lives, without needing to take on hard physical labor?
You collapse afterward, lying on the floor panting, your muscles screaming for rest. You look back on the day with satisfaction of accomplishment, knowing that you did your best and achieved a big chunk of work for the day.
How do we create that satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment in our daily lives?
You spend a few days taking it easy, resting and recovering. Nourishing your body. Taking naps when needed. Deep rest, deep sleep. Full appreciation for your body. Healing. Taking care of yourself. Knowing that this recovery is so important to growth. Knowing that you deserve some delicious rest.
How do we create this sense of self-care and nourishing and true rest, in our daily lives?
There is deep joy in bone-wearying physical work. But this can be an awakening lesson for our daily lives. Let’s create the same deep joy, every damn day.
It might seem impossible to make sense of a nation-wide racial revolt being dropped into the middle of a pandemic in a country that’s already seething with bitter cultural divides, but let’s try anyway.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political here. Instead, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to walk you through how I go about processing extremely emotional and upsetting public events such as this. I think this is important because right now, due to social media and camera phones and 24/7 news coverage, as a society we’ve become bad at processing these events in a helpful way. I’ve had to kind of teach myself to go about reading about these things in a more objective manner and it’s not easy. So, I figured I’d break down my process here.
First, when approaching any difficult subject, before even starting, I try to remind myself of a few things:
- There is little evil in the world, but lots of stupidity and selfishness – With the exception of truly heinous shit, most people are not motivated by evil intentions. In fact, it’s usually the opposite — most people do awful things with the best of intentions. Therefore, we should not assume people’s intentions to be evil, but rather try to understand why they believe what they are doing is good.
- Everyone suffers. The question is, for what reason are they suffering? – It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that nobody should ever be insulted, attacked, hurt, threatened, etc. Not only is this unrealistic, but if we are going to stand up to dangerous groups, individuals or ideas, we have to be willing to sacrifice. Therefore, the question isn’t whether people should suffer or not, rather it’s a question of whether they are suffering for a good reason.
- Prepare to sit with the contradictions – People and groups can be both good and bad simultaneously. In fact, they usually are. Two opposing viewpoints can each be partially correct and partially incorrect. Evidence can be complicated and suggest contradictory conclusions. Be prepared to sit with these. Your mind will try to push you to be comfortable on one side of the fence or the other, but do not let yourself fall into mental complacency. Life is complicated. Issues are complex. Sit with the uncertainty.
With those assumptions in place, I then start asking myself a series of questions, and do research around the answers:
What is the historical precedent?
There is nothing that happens that has not happened countless other times throughout human history. Human societies, for the most part, are flawed in the same ways and make the same mistakes. But we forget about those mistakes every generation or two, so we end up repeating them.
Getting historical perspective is immediately useful because it snaps you out of irrationally feeling that what’s happening is of “end of the world” proportions. It humbles you to see that every generation before you has gone through a similar struggle. And in most cases, things eventually improved.
In this case, the United States has a long, long, long history of both police brutality and racially-motivated riots stretching back hundreds of years. They happened not so long ago in 2014, in Ferguson and Baltimore. But also the Rodney King riots in 1992, the DNC in 1968, Detroit in 1943, Tulsa in 1921, the Red Summer in 1919, etc. Race riots are as American as baseball and apple pie. And sadly, that’s because racism is as American as baseball and apple pie. It’s an inextricable part of our country’s history, and despite great progress made over the past 100 years, the data is overwhelming and clear: this continues to be a huge problem today.
What human biases are at play?
If there’s one psychology lesson everyone should be forced to learn in school it’s that human perceptions are fundamentally inaccurate. Your mind takes shortcuts and these shortcuts are, by and large, self-serving. Our perceptions consistently fall into common traps, and unless we’re aware of them, we’ll helplessly fall into them again and again.
There are many such traps, but I’ve found the following to be the most common and consequential:
- Actor/observer asymmetry – When other people do something wrong, we assume their intentions are bad. When we do the same thing, we assume our intentions are good.
- Confirmation bias – The tendency to only seek out views and attitudes that reflect our own. See: all of social media.
- The fallacies of composition/division – The tendency to judge a whole group based on the actions of one member of that group. Also the tendency to judge an individual based on their affiliation with a group.
- Salience bias – Our tendency to focus on what causes an emotional reaction regardless of whether or not it is important.
- Negativity bias – We pay more attention to negative events and perceive them to be more important than positive events. (Note: This is why the news is always so negative.)
- Impact bias – A tendency to overestimate the future impact of whatever is occurring in the present moment.
The most important bias in the current situation is that of composition/division. Our minds gravitate towards a false “black people vs police” dichotomy. Yet, reality is far more complicated than that. Police in some cities were marching alongside protesters. Many of the looters and rioters were white, masked, and not part of the protests at all. Most of the protesters were non-violent and most of the police were non-violent. But, due to our negativity biases, we saw and remembered the violent ones on each side. And due to our salience bias, we overemphasize the actions of the violent ones over the peaceful majority. And due to the fallacies of composition and division, we make assumptions about two groups based on the actions of a small number of individuals.
Generally, the more incendiary an event, the more “exhausted” our rational minds become and the more we fall back to our mind’s “shortcuts” like the one above. If you familiarize yourself with the above biases, you will soon begin to notice that at least 95% of all political “takes” are simply some form of bias or another. In fact, a lot of news media is designed to leverage these biases to capture and hold your attention. The right does it. The left does it. We all do it. And only by learning to spot these biases in yourself and others can you begin to undo it. Understanding cognitive bias is a type of mental freedom that must be earned through continuous effort.
What are the major socio-economic trends in play?
Okay, here’s where it might start to get triggering, so bear with me. Let’s look at some of the broader social trends going on so we can put some context on what’s happening. What are the social, economic, and political factors that influence this event?
Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious question and the most surprising result. The data is limited and fuzzy, but it seems that police killings of unarmed black suspects are actually down over the past seven years. In fact, it looks like African-American incarceration peaked in the 90s and has been coming down ever since.
Now, let’s slow down for a sec. Chances are that reading that just gave you an intense emotional reaction. I want to state two things clearly: first, just because things have gotten better doesn’t mean they aren’t still a huge problem. And second, just because the public perception is wrong about this, doesn’t mean their anger isn’t legitimate.
Remember, we’re holding contradictory notions in our minds here. Something can be getting better and be wrong. Some people can be wrong about the facts but right about the issue. Public perception is wrong all the time about stuff like this, but that doesn’t make their anger or frustration invalid. It just means that we have to dig a bit deeper to understand more of what’s going on.
It’s hard to see the riots occurring during the COVID-19 lockdowns as purely coincidence. Black Lives Matters protests have happened regularly over the last five years, but they were almost always peaceful and orderly.
Also, what was striking about the protests was that many of the looters and rioters weren’t black. In fact, from most of the footage I saw, it appeared that the violence was usually instigated by young white men. Many of the Black Lives Matters protesters were even yelling and pleading for the white rioters to stop. Many of the rioters seemed to not even give a shit about George Floyd or racial equality. They appeared to be in it purely for the mayhem.
I remember taking a course on geopolitics in university with the professor harping over and over again: revolutionary movements and civil unrest almost always start with large numbers of unemployed young people (particularly young men). They have the most energy and anger towards the world as well as nothing to lose and nothing better to do. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 million Americans have recently been furloughed or laid off. These layoffs have disproportionately affected the working class, most notably minorities and young people.
Therefore, a picture begins to emerge. Yet another infuriating death of a black man at the hands of a police officer. Mass protests emerge around the country, initially by civil rights groups for racial equality. But amid the chaos of the lockdown and the pent up anger and frustration of the young and unemployed, shit got out of hand.
Which brings me to the last long-term trend, the real frustration that I think is underpinning this unrest: A complete and utter lack of effective leadership in the United States. Note: this is not a Trump thing or an Obama thing. Sadly, in the 21st century, it is an American thing.
I am thirty-six years old. Despite crippling problems with health care, education, gun violence, immigration, climate change, stagnant wages, income inequality, and racial equality persisting for my entire adult life, I have never once seen my government help with or resolve any of these issues. For as long as I can remember, it has been: tax cuts, war, tax cuts, bailouts, tax cuts, bailouts. I have never seen things get better in this country. Only worse. I have never seen anything substantive from my leaders, Democrat or Republican, that makes me proud of voting for them. I wasn’t alive for the moon landing. I am too young to remember the Berlin Wall falling. I don’t give a flying fuck about Saddam Hussein. My introduction to my nation was 9/11, followed by hearing about friends and classmates being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by graduating into the worst economic collapse in 86 years, followed by thirteen more years of absolutely no fucking solutions. Forty-five years of no real wage growth for the middle and lower classes? Nothing. Kindergarteners being shot at school with assault rifles? Nothing. Eleven million bankruptcies due to a corrupt and dysfunctional health care system? Nothing. Black people being repeatedly murdered by police, live, on camera? Nothing. An entire generation of young people saddled with over a trillion dollars of debt just to go to school and then told to stay home and not work as soon as they get out?
So, if you’re wondering why the kids are running through the streets destroying everything in sight, now you know.
Stay safe. Show some love to someone this week, preferably a stranger.
We’re all going to need it.
“So, when are you having kids?” my aunt asked me straight in the face, soon after I got married. At that point, I had been married for a few months. I didn’t even know if I wanted kids, much less when I was having them.
Caught off guard, I said, “I have not decided if I want kids.” I would spend the next hour listening to stories of women who had difficulty conceiving for a variety of reasons, with the implicit message being that I was going to be like them and regret it if I didn’t hurry and work on churning out babies.
This would be my life for the next few years, where I received varying forms of “When are you having kids?”, followed by a routine, almost ritualistic pressurization to have kids.
Lest you think that it ends after having a child, it doesn’t — the people who previously tried to persuade you to have “just one kid” when you were indifferent to the idea, now tell you to have “just one more.” It seems like you just can’t win. 😒
The problem with asking, “When are you having kids?”
I can understand why people like to ask this question. Find a partner, settle down, get married, and have kids. This is the life path that we’ve been taught to follow since young. This is the path that we’ve been told is the way of life, which would bring us ultimate joy and happiness.
This is especially so in the Chinese culture, where having kids is seen as the ultimate goal in life. There are even sayings built around this notion, such as 生儿育女 (shēng ér yù nǚ), which means to birth sons and raise daughters, and 子孙满堂 (zǐ sūn mǎn táng), which means to be in a room filled with children and grandchildren.
So after you get married, people automatically assume that you should have kids. “When are you having kids?” they ask, somehow expecting you to give them a straight answer.
The problem with this question is that it’s rude. It’s presumptuous. It’s also insensitive.
1) Happiness can come in different forms
Firstly, everyone has their path in life. Some people want kids, while some don’t want kids. Some people think that having kids is the greatest joy in life, while some see having kids as a burden to their carefree life. To presume that everyone should have kids, especially when the person has never said anything about wanting kids, is rude and disregards the person’s preferences and choice in life.
Take for example, Oprah Winfrey. She chose not to have children and has dedicated herself to her personal purpose of serving the world. Oprah hosted her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show which ran for 25 years, founded a leadership academy for girls and became a mother figure to the girls in attendance, and started her own television network. Through the years, she has inspired millions and become a champion for humans worldwide. As she says,
“When people were pressuring me to get married and have children, I knew I was not going to be a person that ever regretted not having them, because I feel like I am a mother to the world’s children. Love knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if a child came from your womb or if you found that person at age two, 10, or 20. If the love is real, the caring is pure and it comes from a good space, it works.” — Oprah
There are other people who chose not to have kids as well.
- Betty White, actress and comedian, chose not to have kids as she’s passionate about her career and focused on it.
- Chelsea Handler, talkshow host, doesn’t have kids as she doesn’t have the time to raise a child herself, and she doesn’t want her kids to be raised by a nanny.
- Ashley Judd, actress and politican activist, chose not to have kids as there are already so many orphaned kids in this world, and she feels that her resources can be better used to help those already here.
And then there are others who chose not to have kids, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Cameron Diaz, Chow Yun Fat, Marisa Tomei, Renée Zellweger, and Rachael Ray. These people choose not to have kids for different reasons, such as because they’re pursuing paths deeply meaningful to them, they do not wish to be tied down with a child, or they just don’t feel a deep desire to have kids. Not having kids has not prevented them from being happy in life, and there’s no reason to assume why people must have kids in order to be happy.
2) You may well cause hurt and pain
Secondly, you never know what others are going through.
Some people may want kids, but maybe they are facing fertility struggles.
- Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan went through three miscarriages before having their firstborn.
- The Obamas had a miscarriage before they had their daughters via IVF.
- Friends star Courteney Cox had a total of seven miscarriages before having her daughter, as she has a MTHFR gene mutation which raises the risk of miscarriage-causing blood clots.
For some people, the journey to conceive is fraught with deep pain, struggle, and losses as they experience miscarriages, undergo round after round of invasive fertility treatments, and wait in hope of the double blue lines on their pregnancy kit each month.
And then there are people who cannot have their own biological children due to issues with their reproductive system, which could have been there since birth.
While you may be think that you’re being helpful or funny by asking people when they’re having kids, your question may well trigger hurt and pain. As Zuckerberg said,
“You feel so hopeful when you learn you’re going to have a child. You start imagining who they’ll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they’re gone. It’s a lonely experience.”
3) Not everyone is in a position to have kids
Thirdly, having kids is simply not a reality for some people due to their circumstances in life.
Some people may lack the financial resources to have kids, a reality in a place like Singapore.
Some people may be facing problems with their marriage, in which case their priority should be to work on their marriage, not to have kids.
Some people may be so burdened with caring for their dependents that they are unable to consider kids, at least not at the moment.
And then there are people facing chronic health issues, issues that you don’t know and can’t see, which make pregnancy difficult due to the toll it would take on their body.
4) Some couples could still be thinking
And then there are people who are neutral to the idea of having kids, like myself when I just got married. These people need time to think it through, because having kids is a permanent, lifelong decision with serious consequences. There’s no reason to assume that having a kid should be an automatic decision, because you’re bringing a whole new life into this world. This is a decision that will change your life forever, as well as the life of the child you’re bringing into the world.
For those yet to have kids, they need the space to figure out what they want, not have people breathe down their neck day in and out about having kids.
For the initial years after I got married, I just wasn’t thinking about kids. Firstly, having a child is a lifelong decision, and I wanted to enjoy married life with just my husband first, before diving into a decision as serious as that. Secondly, both my husband and I were genuinely happy spending the rest of our lives with just each other — we didn’t feel the need to have kids at all, not in the way my culture obssesses about it. Thirdly, my husband was dealing with some personal problems, and I was fully focused on supporting him through these. These were issues that we needed to sort through before considering kids, if we were to want kids.
Yet I kept getting nudges to have kids, even though I never said anything about wanting them.
“So, when are you having kids?”
“[This relative’s] baby is so cute, isn’t it? Why don’t you hurry up and birth a baby?”
It was as if I was some vehicle, some production machine to have kids, where my own views in the matter didn’t matter. The most frustrating thing was that I kept getting this question, while my husband would never get it (as a man), not even when we were in the same room together.
It was as if my sole reason for existence as a woman was to have kids, and until I had them, I was regarded as unworthy or incomplete.
The decision to have kids
Yet the decision to have children is a personal one. It is also a complex one. It is a decision that will permanently change the lives of the couple in question.
It is not a decision that one should be pressurized into making because their mom wants to carry grandchildren or their aunt wants to play with kids. It’s a decision that a couple should make because they genuinely want to nurture another life.
Because when a child is born, the people bugging others to have kids aren’t the ones who will be caring for the baby 24/7, whose lives will be set back by years (even decades) as they care for a new life, or who will be responsible for every decision concerning the child for the next 18-21 years.
It will be the couple.
And the people who aren’t ready, who were pressured into having kids because they were told that it was the best thing to do, may have to deal with regret as they are stuck with a decision they cannot undo. Because there are people who regret having kids, and we need to be honest about that. These people regret, not because of the child’s fault, but because they were simply not ready to have kids, be it financially, emotionally, or mentally. Unfortunately, the children are the ones who eventually suffer, from living in dysfunctional households to dealing with issues of violence, abuse, and anger.
We need to recognize these realities, and not make parenthood seem like it’s some magical band-aid that solves a lack of purpose or life’s pressures. Things don’t magically get better because people have kids; existing problems usually worsen as having a child puts a big strain on a couple’s lives. Digging into people’s plans to have kids, and pressurizing them into one of the biggest life decisions they can ever make, will only stress them out and perhaps push some into depression. As this redditor shared,
“I have a friend who went through 6 years of miscarriages and fertility treatments before the doctors figured out the problem and she had her son. The nosy ladies at her work and her in-laws questioned her constantly. The depression from that made it harder for her to conceive.”
Stop asking couples when they’re having kids
So, if you tend to ask others when they’re having kids, it’s time to stop that. It’s rude, insensitive, and it disregards people’s privacy. It’s also none of your business.
The reality is that if people want kids, they will work on having kids. They don’t need you to prod them about it.
If they don’t have kids, it’s either because
- they really don’t want kids,
- they are not in a position to consider kids right now, or
- they want kids but they are facing some struggles.
For people in group (c), they aren’t going to share such deeply personal experience over some afternoon coffee chat, and certainly not by you asking, “When are you having kids?”
The best thing you can do is to give people their personal space. Understand that having kids is a personal decision, and people don’t have to share or explain anything. Respect that others have their right to privacy. Respect that people are individuals on their own path, and this path may not involve having kids. And this doesn’t make them incomplete or lesser in any way.
Instead of asking women or couples, “When are you having kids?”, talk to them like how you would a normal person. There’s no reason why conversations should suddenly revolve around childbearing after marriage; it’s not like a person’s identity changes to revolve around having kids. A person still has their own passion, goals, and dreams. Talk to them about what they’ve been doing. Understand their interests. Know them as a real person, not some random being here to fulfill society’s checklist.
If you’re really interested in someone’s plan to have children, you can simply ask, “Are you and your partner planning to have kids?” If they wish to share more, they will do so. If they give a generic answer, then take the hint and move on.
Ultimately, having kids or not doesn’t change a person’s self-worth. A woman is complete with or without kids. A marriage doesn’t need kids to be deemed complete. Having kids should be a conscious choice, not a result of external pressure. Don’t judge people by whether they have kids or not. Some people will have kids, and some people will not have kids. Some will have kids early, while some will have them later in life. All of these are different paths, and there’s nothing wrong about any of them.
For my husband and I, we eventually had a few discussions and decided to have a baby, and had our baby girl this year (2020). 😊 Yet other people’s comments and nudges to have children didn’t make me want to have children; it only annoyed me and made me want to avoid these people, because having a child is a personal decision between me and my husband, that has nothing to do with them. It was after we had the space to settle down and enjoy married life without kids, and took some time to actively pursue our goals and interests, that we finally felt ready to try for a kid last year.
In the meantime, I hope all of you are doing well. There are other things that I’m working on, other things that are happening that I look forward to sharing in time to come. Sending lots of love to you, and remember that whatever life challenge you’re facing, you have it in you to overcome it. I’ll talk to you guys soon! 🙂