Just like we’re not entitled to their every thought or very being
One of many people’s biggest complaints in a relationship is “when my partner doesn’t tell me how they feel” (or “open up” or “talk to me,” etc.)
Ask these people what’s “literally the worst thing” in love and — second only to the thought of their partner leaving them — they will tell you: the frustration of a partner not sharing their feelings.
So, overwhelmed with the anxiety of not knowing — and being ill-equipped to manage this anxiety in healthier, more constructive ways — these people rush their partner, crowding them emotionally and coercing them,
Talk to me! Tell me how you feel. I wanna talk about it. I want to know what you’re feeling. I just want you to open up. Share with me. Tell me. Talk to me.
Give me. Give me. Give me.
People like this think “love” means “always sharing” and “sharing everything,” and they think this behavior translates as “intimacy,” but in reality it’s just “disrespecting your partner’s personal space” and “steamrolling healthy boundaries.”
I’m not suggesting that shutting down and stonewalling is the path to a great relationship — that’s not good, either. Because love does mean sharing. It does mean “talking about how you feel” and “letting the other person in;”being vulnerable and open and honest — all of that’s great.
But there’s a huge difference between offering and being obligated.
Offering to share with our partner is intimate. Being pushed to isn’t. If webully our partners into sharing, we are directly undercutting the very intimacy we think we’re building. If we whine, or cajole, or get defensive, or pissy, or play any kind of emotional war games in response to them holding back, we are being shittier than they are.
Because other people’s emotions are first and foremost theirs, not ours.What they do with them is their prerogative, not ours. And hearing them,if they choose to share, is a privilege, not a right. We are not “owed” anything in their heads.
“Sharing is caring!”
But care is also about being fair. Love is about respecting boundaries and understanding what’s yours, what’s theirs, and what they want as well.
“Yeah but if I don’t know what’s wrong, then how can I fix it?”
I understand where this is coming from, but it’s also worth understanding: other people are not ours to “dig at” or “fix,” and doing so is only “loving” if it’s also welcomed. Our partners are not our personal puzzles and our relationship isn’t a game of codependency Clue.
“But I just want them to share!”
Mm hm. And you’d probably also like it if someone gave you a million dollars. But we are no more entitled to someone’s personal experience than we are to someone’s money.
“But why won’t they just tell me?! Why is that so hard?”
Because they don’t want to. Maybe they’re not ready, maybe nothing’s wrong, maybe the feelings are still half-baked, maybe now’s not the time, maybe they’re self-soothing, maybe it’s not a big deal, maybe they don’t like how you latch on when they share; it doesn’t matter. They don’t want to. We can’t push.
We can make ourselves available, we can ask, we can invite, we can listen.
But above all, we must respect boundaries and recognize that it’s their emotions — not ours. The good thing is that with that comes the beautiful treasure of understanding: when they finally do share, it’s because they wanted to. And when they’re ready, if it’s important, they will.
People are increasingly unsure about kids, and the US and European fertility rate is at an all-time low. According to Pew Research Center study, 1 in 5 people will remain childless. That’s doubled since the 1970s.
Uncertainty is higher among women than men
Women are not just delaying babies; they’re debating them altogether.
“Having kids was once considered a necessity for every woman, but the last few years have shown shifting trends surrounding settling down.”
As Bryce Covert wrote: men want kids — and women aren’t so sure.
“In a nationally-representative survey of single, childless people in 2011, more men than women said they wanted kids… Another poll from 2013 echoed those findings, with more than 80 percent of men saying they’d always wanted to be a father or at least thought they would be someday. Just 70 percent of women felt the same.”
There’s a joke we have in software regarding the inherent standoff between developers and managers, represented by a chicken (managers) and a pig (developers):
As a woman, that’s pretty much how “the kid conversation” feels.
When I broke up with an ex-partner, he made a last-ditch effort at staying together by saying: “but I wanna have kids with you!”
To be clear: the only time we’d talked “kids” was when we joked “probably not.” I was super busy (and super happy) at work, logging 12-hour days and weekends. I had zero interest in a baby. But when I said this, he countered,
“That’s okay — just have the kids and then I’ll raise them.”
I heard that and thought, “say what now??” Bud, I’m not a broodmare. I’m not going to be a surrogate to my own kids.
And like I said, we broke up.
And yet, bad argument or not, we’re all still left with the overarching question: should I have kids?
In order to argue “religion,” you have to believe in it, and people who believe in it aren’t undecided on kids, so don’t need this post. It’s for everyone who doesn’t use religion, and needs discussions outside of it.
Most Common Reasons To Have Kids:
Reason #1: Status in Society
If you value social norms, you’ll probably have kids. Because even as childlessness becomes more common, it still isn’t socially accepted.
Psychology professor Leslie Ashburn-Nardo conducted a study where participants read about a fictional person (described as male or female with either zero or two children) and then shared their feelings on them.
What she found was astonishing. When childless, the fictional people were “perceived to be significantly less psychologically fulfilled,” and not only that, but participants expressed emotional reactions such as disgust, disapproval, annoyance, and anger towards them.
“People experience moral outrage when they perceive someone has violated a morally prescribed behavior, something we’re ‘supposed to do’ because it’s what we see as right.”
My ex-partner’s sudden urgency to have kids happened right after his friends started having them. When I asked about his change of heart, he admitted: “everyone else is doing it!”
We may laugh at this, but at least he was honest enough to say it.
But much like “religion,” this argument only works if you value social norms — and some of us don’t.
I don’t owe the world anything. Like, I’m also a talented visual artist but few people know this about me. I don’t owe the world art, and I don’t owe it kids.
Reason #2: Fear of Regret
Many people have kids because they “don’t want to regret not having them”— or because others threaten they will.
But, bro — have you heard of FOMO? Because this is just FOMO — “fear of missing out.”
“FOMO frequently provokes feelings of anxiety and restlessness, often generated by competitive thoughts that others are experiencing more pleasure, success, or fulfillment in their lives than they are… FOMO behavior will continue to prevail and diminish the overall quality of well-being, and fulfillment in one’s relationships and life in general.”
And as Gabriele Moss wrote, if “you’re only doing it because you’re afraid of missing out” or “people say you’ll regret it if you don’t,” then you’re going at it all wrong.
But FOMO exists because:
We regret things we didn’t do more than the things we do
As Daniel Gilbert wrote in Stumbling on Happiness,
“In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean those regrets are “correct!” It’s just how our brains work.
“The psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than actions.”
In other words: our brain struggles to conceptualize and fill the “white space” of not doing something, so we assign it with the biggest negative emotion and then call the thing “regret.”
Fear — even fear of regret — is not a healthy motivator
Good decisions are made out of love, not fear
Move towards the things you want; don’t just avoid the things that scare you.
Have kids because you’re ready to love — not because you’re terrified of regret or other risks.
Some people do regret kids
They just don’t talk about it.
In 1975, advice columnist Ann Landers asked her readers, “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?”
Nearly 10,000 parents replied on handwritten postcards, and a few weeks later, Landers shared the survey results in an article headlined “70 PERCENT OF PARENTS SAY KIDS NOT WORTH IT.”
Mother Brooke Lark wrote about her experience as a parent saying,
“I am in the smack-dab middle of motherhood and I feel lost. I feel time-sucked and threadworn. I feel like I’m responsible for carrying the world… There is no break. There is no quitting. There is no vacation. There is constant guilt. That reality is sobering and exhausting.”
Someone once told me, “not having kids won’t keep you from getting old.”
And to her (and other people who argue that), I just want to point out:
“Having kids won’t keep you from being lonely when you’re old.”
In her last book, I Remember Nothing, accomplished author and mother Norah Ephron wrote,
“In time, of course, the kids grew up and it was just me and Nick in the house on Long Island. The sound of geese became a different thing — the first sign that summer was not going to last forever, and soon another year would be over. Then, I’m sorry to say, they became a sign not just that summer would come to an end, but that so would everything else.”
Children go off and live their own lives. All of us, kids or not, will be left to deal with the sunsetting of our days. I don’t mean to be morbid; I only mean to be honest.
It is our job, not our kids’, to ease existential woes and deal with our death.
Reason #4: “I just want to see…”
…“how they’ll turn out,” “what they’ll look like,” “my partner as a parent,” etc.
“Kids aren’t personal experiments. They’re not mirrors we can admire ourselves in. They’re their own living, breathing people and they’ll look how they look, learn what they learn, and be who they are regardless of us.”
We often think of kids in the theoretical sense, but kids are their own, separate people — not extensions of ourselves.
Reason #5: Happiness
Fact: Kids don’t actually make us happier
Since the 1980s, at least two-dozen studies have shown that the quality of marriage decreases once the couple has kids. Studies also show that when kids leave the nest, parents are happier than any other time in their relationship.
University researchers Philip and Carolyn Cowan shared,
“More than 25 separate studies have established that marital quality drops, often quite steeply, after the transition to parenthood. And forget the “empty nest” syndrome: when the children leave home, couples report an increase in marital happiness.”
Psychologist Ashburn-Nardo shared,
“Meta-analyses of hundreds of studies demonstrate that having children negatively affects relationship satisfaction.”
To be fair, most worthwhile things don’t make us happier in the moment. But I wish we’d stop confusing the two and lying, using the word “happy” when we really mean something else…
Reason #6: Meaning
Many people cite their kids as the most meaningful part of their lives, but that doesn’t mean we should. Good parenting means honoring kids as their own people, with their own lives, whose “meaning” is entirely separate from ours — and vice versa.
A new mom once told me, “you either have to make a million dollars, or you have to have kids.”
And an (arguably bad) therapist once threatened: “if you don’t have kids, you’ll have nothing.”
Both times, I stared back thinking that’s a human being.
Kids aren’t here to “fill your life”
They are not here to ease our existential anxiety or distract us from it, and even if we ascribe meaning to them, the responsibility still falls on us.
And secondly: our lives — and days — don’t have to be manically “filled.”
As Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground … The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half-real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
When I think of my life, I see lightness.
Many people are anxious about this, agonizing over the white space of childlessness.
“If not kids, then what?!” They need to know. They need a box, a marker, a label, a reason, and an explanation as to why — and “what instead.”
And when you don’t offer one, they shovel in their own certainty — “you will!” — trying to reassure themselves by pretending to reassure others.
And maybe they’re right. I don’t have enough emotion loaded into the issue to get defensive or argue otherwise. But I’m still not convinced right now.
And as one woman in her 60’s said,
“That’s just because you think there’s still more time.”
And sure, that’s true, but I’m also not sure I’d care if this was all there was.
I’m also so happy with my partner I’d never ask anything more of him (except the baby, if we do), and I think I’d be totally happy with a life that continued more or less like this until they day I died. I think we all get to that point, mentally and emotionally. We get “okay.” It’s just that some of us have already had kids by the time we do.
In other words: this thing others call “nothing” I see as “contentment.”
“I could go either way”
I tell partners: if you forced me to say yes or no right now, I’d say no. But I could see myself changing my mind.
“I believed that if I was ‘in love enough,’ I’d feel that primal push toward motherhood that seemed to grip so many of my friends… even as a child, when I imagined my grown-up future, I didn’t necessarily picture motherhood.”
Ditto. But I’ve always been open to the possibility of waking up one day and wanting a kid in the way I pulled the trigger on buying a bike, moving to the south or cutting my hair — after years of deliberation, culminating in an instant when I’m so certain there’s no more wondering.
And these decisions, I should note, have always been my happiest. Which is why I’m not only open to it happening this way, but am perhaps hoping it will.
And I can afford to think this way. Still only in my early 30s, there’s still time.
There are a number of things I should my indecision isn’t. Such as:
It’s not feminism. I’m not taking a stand against traditional roles or anything. At least consciously.
I didn’t have a bad childhood. I mean, no worse than average. I think.
It’s not lack of money. I mean, not directly — though after years of student loans, I’m not exactly ecstatic about continuing to hemorrhage it.
But it’s not because I want to spend it on travel or cars or whatever.
In fact, the only real thing my indecision is is: I’m not sure I want them!
And yet still…
My mother does this “needle test” — dangling a needle on a thread over someone’s palm and watching its pattern to determine their (current or future) kids’ gender(s). Mine always comes out 1 girl, 1 boy (in that order), which is, coincidentally, exactly what I’d want if I could pick. I’d love to chalk the whole thing up as fake (my brother and sister-in-law certainly have) but it’d be a whole lot easier to do so if I hadn’t seen those needle test projections come out exactly accurate over the 10+ years she’s been doing it.
So I guess what I’m saying is: on top of everything else, I guess I want to be open to whatever the universe has in store for me.
LIKING kids — but not LOVING them
It’s sort of like being a cat or dog person
I like cats. But I prefer dogs.
My thing with cats is: all their bullshit isn’t “cute” to me. Laying down on my keyboard isn’t cute. Knocking shit off surfaces isn’t cute. Being little assholes isn’t cute.
But the difference between me and “cat people” isn’t that they like those behaviors, but rather they aren’t bothered as much —they like the cat enough that it’s worth it.
That’s how “kids” feel for “kid people.”
And it’s not that I would never have a cat — especially since my partner absolutely loves them. (Seriously, he gets more excited about cats than almost anything else; any time we’re around one, he becomes this adorable, baby-talking little old lady.) I’d get one if it came down to it.
And that’s how I feel about kids.
I’d make a good parent
Tons of people feel this way. Though, of course, most of us are wrong, we all have our own reasons for warranting this belief, and mine is: I don’t glorify motherhood.
I wouldn’t hang my identity on it, or offload my insecurities into my children. I’d let them be their own people, and I’d love them accordingly. (Just like I am as a partner.)
Bad moms are the ones who try too hard to “mother,” putting too much of themselves into it. They’d never admit to this of course — I mean, why would they? — and on the contrary, they will spend a great deal of time and energy arguing the defensive position.
Good moms relinquish their grip. They honor their kids as separate people.
Kids take work. (Never-ending and thankless work.)
I don’t see joy when I see children; I see work. I see the day to day realities. And not labors of love even, but work for what it is — years of thankless straining, work that hinges on having huge reserves of intrinsic motivation.
“I wasn’t aware how much work they are. Work — and joy! But, seriously: WORK. Exhausting, bone-crushing, emotionally draining, you-will-be-touching-human-feces-often work… You can’t ignore your kid, because he or she is a living, breathing creature who relies on you to maintain his or her existence. Your needs — rest, intellectual stimulation, a shower, frozen yogurt — cease to matter when your child comes into the picture. And there is nothing wrong with finding the thought of this kind sacrifice utterly appalling.”
Children are lovely little creatures. Children are also tiny terrors.
I like paid work
Not purely as a matter of income, but more importantly: having a bit of space and wherewithal in the economy.
As Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique,
“The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.”
Not just creative work, but paid creative work. Everyone should have independent economic means, and much of the angsty malaise of the stay-at-home-mom isn’t (just) under-appreciation, but lack of outside work.
Things I just don’t want to deal with:
1.) The emotional labor
Parenting takes a lot of work — way more than dressing your kid in a cute outfit and calling it a day. It takes conscious communication, patience, and consistency, and unfortunately not all people who become parents were ever equipped for the most important parts.
2.) The sheer amount of stuff
I just don’t want my life to be saturated with “kid shit.”
My partner and I recently visited one of his friends and his wife who recently had a baby, and every time they turned around, my eyes would dart around the room in horror at the wall to wall “kid shit.” Toys, play mats, a high chair, a stroller, a playpen, a swing, a whole section of the couch set up for, presumably, nursing. I just could not get over how much shit there was.
3.) Loss of sleep
It’s not that I sleep until 1 pm or anything — I’m a respectable human being with a normal sleep schedule, and I freaking love the morning hours — but I am very protective of my sleep. I once dated a bad snorer and it was borderline deal-breaker.
And neither does my partner. The idea of daily meal prep makes me feel bored out of my mind. And I hear most people agree, treating it as a necessary chore, but again — cost:benefit.
5.) Being interrupted
I hate being interrupted so much that when my little sister was a toddler and would bust into other people’s conversations mid-sentence with some kid shit, it was one of the few times I actively “mothered” her (“don’t do that — it’s rude.”)
“Interrupting” is still one of my biggest pet peeves, and one of the biggest “bad habits” I am most quick to nip in the bud with a new partner. I’ll say it to friends, I’ll say it to colleagues. I’ve stopped hanging out with people over it.
6.) I don’t want to go to Disneyland
And I don’t want to be the asshole parent for feeling that way.
Frankly, most things “Disney” are weird at best, and a little toxic at worst. And I’m not saying I wouldn’t take them — I’m sure I would — but the only thing that makes it worthwhile is if they freaking loved it, and given what I know about kids, there will be at least one Mickey Mouse Meltdown.
7.) Intellectual Atrophy
It takes a special kind of everyday saint to deal with all of the mind-numbing mundanity.
Do you know how much those little shits cost? A lot. Like, $250K+ a lot.
Which is exactly what I point out to anyone who says they want kids so someone takes care of them in old age. Put that money away and you can hire someone.
9.) Porn and/or drugs (the kid’s)
Future kids are going to see porn in kindergarten and I just don’t have the emotional wherewithal to fight the internet. And what happens when the kid gets into meth or heroin? What are you going to do with that?
10.) Health problems (the kid’s)
When considering a potential partner, I always ask myself: “how would he react if our kid had leukemia?” People always think of idealizations, but sometimes shit hits the fan.
Things I love that I’d be giving up:
The bike. Minimalism. Quiet. Sunday mornings poring over one or three of my many, many books… the bike.
I know people with kids are quick to jump in here like, “but you replace those things with joy!!” And to that I’m just sitting here staring back like, “you either don’t understand the deep, visceral joy of a motorcycle, or you’re totally immune to the gross chaos that is the back of a minivan, because those two do not even compare.”
When to have kids
When what you value makes the payoffs worthwhile.
When you do so from a place of love, not fear.
So: what do you value?
It differs by person — and it’s for you to figure out. Is travel or work most important (forever?) Is doing the right thing?
But as you ask yourself, just make absolutely sure you are answering from a place of love, not fear — from a place of desiring something, not avoiding the alternative; i.e., “I want to” (raise kids, love them) not “I don’t want to” (regret it, die alone, etc.) And make sure your “want” honors them as people, not extensions of yourself.
But above all else: when the idea of having kids makes you feel more good than bad. When you’re ready to put in the work. When you’re doing so from a place of love, not fear. When you can offer love on a consistent basis.
Some of the best things in life are things that can’t be “won.”
Like visiting your grandma. Raising children. Building a beautiful relationship. Building a great team. Doing improv. Knitting.
But also creating. Inventing. Building. Putting something new out into the world for the sole purpose of seeing it done.
These are all things that are inherently “win-less,” and though some people might try to game the system (I’m thinking of a few folks my age who have magically gotten back in touch with their grandparents now that they’ve realized more of the inheritance pie might be up for grabs), the only ones they are cheating are themselves.
Don’t try to win at knitting, guys. Don’t try to win at wrenching on a car.
Do something you love — and be genuine about that, especially outside of working hours — and then just focus on throwing more love at it. That’s how you get good at it. That’s how you truly win.
I’m going to talk about improv again, because I went to another show tonight — some of my classmates were doing their first one, so I went to show my support. And the thing with improv is this: the minute you try to “win” at it, you out yourself as the asshole on stage.
The way to “win” at improv is by making other people look hilarious. It’s by building on what others put out there, and making it real.
And the way to be crazy good at improv is just to love doing it. The people who are best at improv freaking love doing improv — not those who go out there hellbent on “winning” the scene.
And don’t get me wrong — after the second class, I definitely wanted to be “good” at improv. I spent hours watching videos; I went to class and gave it my all. And after six weeks, I am. But I never went into it trying to “win” by, for example, “beating others.” There was nothing extrinsic or comparative about it.
It’s the same with writing — there is no “winner” in writing. There might be best sellers and high earners, but I can almost guarantee that few of them got there by having “winning” as their primary objective.
Same with startups. Inventors. Artists. I mean, maybe Banksy was trying to “win” at graffiti — I don’t know the guy — but I doubt it was his primary motivation.
All of them are intrinsically — not extrinsically — motivated.
A lot of life is about winning — sure. Go for it. But a lot of life is also about shit that can’t be won.
Pick something in your life you can’t win. Not work, necessarily, but definitely something you’d be pumped to get happiness from. And then love on it hard instead.
I’d really like to say — no, I’d love to say — that improv would definitely change your life.
I’d love for everyone to have the experience with improv that I’ve had with improv. I’d love for everyone to come away from every class so energized and happy and beaming that they can’t even get to sleep for a good hour or two afterwards, despite it being their bedtime. I’d love for everyone to love improv so much that they scarcely think about whether or not they’re any good; for them to love it so much that they are good, but neither notice nor care. (Which is why they’re good. Chicken and egg here, as you can see.)
But the best I can say for sure? Is that it might.
The best purchase I’ve made so far this year was a lamp.
Now, I guess I should add a bit of color here — I read and write a lot. And our apartment faces a courtyard and for some inexplicable reason my boyfriend likes to keep the shades closed anyway, and had (pre-me) decked the place out in these “warm, muted” (read: dim) accent lamps acres away from where I sit to do my “word things.” So when I formally moved in, it was the one thing I demanded. I wanted a good lamp, and now I have one. (It’s like 8 feet tall and LED. So. Be amazed.) And every time I pad out and plop down on the couch early morning to get to reading / writing / opening my notebook to a fresh page to watch out of my peripheral vision while I surf the web for 30 minutes first, I soak it all up in that bright light and sigh contentedly thinking, “damn, this shit is nice.”
That’s the best purchase I’ve made this year.
But one of the best decisions I’ve made? Taking improv classes.
I thought about it for years and finally pulled the trigger. And here are the two biggest, life-changing, mind-blowing, heart-busting things that I’ve learned.
1. If you struggle with: Taking Action
(You might call it: “procrastination,” “planning,” or “waiting for the right time/idea.”)
Take your excuses and shove them
All of that bullshit you tell yourself, as to why you’re not jumping and doing something? Nobody cares about hearing it in improv. It literally doesn’t exist. You’re either playing or not playing, and nobody gives two shits whether your fear was “valid” or not, or whether your need for “absolute certainty” or “the right moment” was real. The only thing that matters is getting in, and if you’re not in, you might as well be dead. You don’t exist.
Improv will teach you to get in. Improv will teach you to get over yourself. Improv will show you that everything beautiful comes from action and engagement, and that pristine picture you’re waiting for is garbage compared to the way jumping in feels.
And yeah, this can still feel like an impossibly hard principle in real life
Because real life is not improv, and our real life people have less tolerance for make-believe or mistakes. Real life people don’t just “yes, and” regardless of what you say, and vice versa. Real life requires reason and rationale and for things to make sense. And I get it, because if people in my real life were to read this, most of them would be like “she doesn’t jump in at all!” And it’s like, yeah buddy — see: reason for taking improv.
Because all of that aside? You’d be amazed how much of life is really just jumping in. Like no, you can’t just start off a conversation by announcing “I train circus bears” or “I’m running from the law” (especially if it’s true) like you can in improv, but improv will show you how beautiful it is when you jump in with anything.
In short? Improv takes the scariness of being “right” away — clears the plate of “certainty” and makes it totally not a thing at all — for the sole purpose of showing you: look! look at how good it feels when you do something!
Improv will show you that you can do it. You do have this skill set — the same skills you silence and swear up and down you can’t exercise until you know it’s “right.” And, not only that, improv will show how much freaking better it feels to jump in than stand with your ass stapled to the wall waiting for “the right time.”
Improv is like a gateway drug to being action-oriented and over yourself.
2. If you struggle with: What Others Think
And have a fear of being judged — or failing publicly.
Connection is everything
You are not the star of this show. Not the improv show, and not the show of your life.
I mean, okay yes, clearly your universe starts and ends with you — it has to. So yes, to you, special snowflake, you are the star. And the hero. And the prince or princess. But what I mean here is that the minute you’d like to create something real and external, it involves other people, too.
Everything anybody does is because they connected with at least one other person — even if they’re focused on the same, external shit. There were two Wright brothers. More than one man went to the moon. Even Edison and other brilliant “lone-wolf” inventors had some lab-rat assistants milling about.
Improv doesn’t work without other people. And by that I don’t just mean “material” or “someone to take the heat off when you’re out of ideas.” I mean a human being — not the brain, but the body; the chemistry. Maybe we’ll see improv partners replaced with software or AI or robots in our lifetime (sure), especially for practice (I want in!) but at its core, improv takes a pulse. And so does life.
If you’re afraid of what others will think, improv will help. A lot of people compare it to ToastMasters for improving public speaking skills, and the whole idea makes me laugh. I did ToastMasters when I was in banking in my early 20’s, and these two things are totally and entirely not the same. It’s like comparing an old, grimy, dimly-lit lap pool to a kiddie pool. Filled with toys. Like, yeah they’re both technically water… but that’s pretty much the end of that.
ToastMasters is stiff. In fact, its “stiffness” is the number one reason I quit. Every time “Ze President” brought that actual gavel down, I was suppressing laughter in the corner. Like are you people kidding me with this??! ToastMasters is 1993 and so tragically out of date it’s actually funny, but prides itself on never, ever changing — ever. It’s a series of preordained, one-way conversations to hyper-critical, over-eager audience members pawing corrective “clickers” to audibly mark every mistake. ToastMasters is the opposite of improv. ToastMasters can’t get over itself.
Improv is play. The only gavel you might see in improv is imaginary, and odds are fair someone might get fake-hit with it.
Improv is relationship. Improv is love. You might not believe me (or you might not think you care) — I didn’t until I went — but every player has a deep drive to make you look (and feel) good. That’s the entire point of the game. So if you struggle with a fear of judgment in real life, playing improv with a bunch of strangers will, over time, show you an overarching truth: people want to see people do well. That’s not an “improv partner” thing. That’s a basic “human being” thing. (And the most judgmental ones are usually the ones in biggest need of this lesson. And a hug.)
If your fear of public speaking is other people, don’t do ToastMasters — do improv. And if your fear of anything is perfection or planning or certainty, do improv, too.
That’s not to say this year won’t be — maybe it will, so calm down — but in terms of being able to look back on things with the clarity of not being balls-deep in them in real time, last year, of all the years, was pretty rad.
And I was even pretty sure of it at the time, which is truly fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but I gave it a full calendar year before confirming. And then I also told my partner so.
I said just that. “Last year was the happiest year of my life.”
And, because he’s like this, he asked, “why?”
Of course making me laugh as I answered, half in shock, “you!” And then laughed a bit more before clarifying, “yeah, and trees and work and humidity and road trips and a whole bunch of other things, most of which wouldn’t have even happened if it hadn’t been for you. So sure, they’re worth noting, but mostly you.”
And I guess this answer satisfied him, because he didn’t have any further clarifying questions.
And yet, when I look back, I can see the pangs of fear I’d buried, day to day. The days when I had first moved down here to the south and he was out of town for two weeks straight, before I’d found work and was too immersed in my own journey to find friends, when I rode to the bookstore every. single. day. and sat and read entire books in single sittings. Partly because I was on a budget. But mostly to be out in public. To remind myself I was tethered to other people in some way.
Those moments were framed by fear. And something a little like “loneliness,” albeit not real loneliness — just more like that sad loneliness we get when we realize winter is settling in each fall. Something very still, and a little scary. Something we’re socialized to smooth over with other things. Something we’ll bury regardless, whether we sit in silence or go out.
I had my own business the year before
And was dating a different partner whom I thought, at the time, made me happy enough. The key here is “enough.” I always knew I wasn’t ecstatic, but I thought it was okay for then. Apparently I am woefully bad at knowing what makes me happy, because I aggressively charged forward with the business and the boyfriend, willfully ignored all the signs until I got to the point of watching myself do things entirely unfamiliar to me.
Like the morning I had a panic attack, when I was so unfamiliar with the concept of a panic attack that I didn’t even know that’s what it was until I later described it to a friend and she stared at me in horror and then clarified for me, spoken slowly and in short words, “KG. That’s a panic attack. You had a panic attack.”
This was the same friend that had to explain to me that my relationship was abusive. Which it was. Which is why I had a panic attack.
And yet, during all of this, I thought it was good enough. “Relationships take work,” after all. Businesses, certainly, take sacrifice. We’re terrible at understanding how that should look — and where to draw the line. What’s happiness, and what’s hateful.
“You don’t know how to be happy.”
My boyfriend of five years, the one before the panic-attack one, told me that.
Actually, he didn’t tell me; he told my mom. And then she told me. But when it came to their weird-ass work-around relationship, it was kind of the same thing. They both had a lot of opinions about me, “supported” by “conversations” they’d never had with me and things I’d never said. Not that I’m bitter or anything. Because I’m totally not.
For a long time I thought that assessment was outright unfair at best; wrong at worst. And then for a brief period of time, I thought maybe it was true. Now I’m back to asking:
What is happiness even?
And if we don’t have a good answer to that question, what does it even matter?
Happiness vs. Meaning
And, arguably… “meaning” vs. something further still…
In a 2013 study, Stanford professors recognized that the sole pursuit of happiness leads to “a meaningless life,” and that:
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”
Victor Frankl writes that work means more than happiness. And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, emphasizes the importance of pursuing mastery of something over passive leisure (the latter of which many of us identity as “happiness.”)
We impose happiness on ourselves. And worse, we impose it on others, upholding the phrases “I just want you to be happy” as the pinnacle of love (and the suggestion that “you just don’t know how to be happy” as a tremendous threat.) When they’re not.
But after a while they both felt like the same: being shoved into some adorable little box you had no intention of being in. Conventional, sure, but uncomfortable nonetheless.
Happiness vs… something else?
Or, in the least, happiness redefined?
I’m not even sure life inherently needs to have meaning. We hold that over our own heads, too. And not to go full nihilist on your ass, there are a lot of moments, increasingly, when I’m like “yeah, but where’s the data on that though?” Who decided this whole thing had to have meaning, how is that not just our ego barking in our ear and, perhaps most ironically: how is that expectation not setting us up for the same unhappiness we were trying to avoid.
And if we suspend that assumption — don’t chase happiness; don’t chase meaning — rather than closing life off, it actually opens life up. Because we don’t have everything in a chokehold of expectation, and let things unfold as they are, we exist a lot more lightly — and, perhaps more importantly, with honesty and in alignment with the way things actually are.
It’s real hard to write about your life without writing about your life, especially when you’ve got the inclination to write about your life.
I don’t really write about details because I’m never sure which to include. Safest bet is always the past, except when you consider that I’m far more interested in the present, future, or “non-time, pure-fluff theoretical” tense.
I don’t really write about where I live because I’m not sure it matters.
I don’t really write about work because, I don’t know, separation of church and state. Also it’s not really important. But mostly the former, because the only thing standing between this world and that one is the play-pretend model I have for keeping the two apart.
I also don’t really write about my partner day to day. I write about him at a high level, skirt around our story (“friends for fifteen years, but that’s enough of that — here I am going on and on!”)
But I want to write about what I write about, because writing is my part of the deal.
I can choose whatever form I want. I can talk theoretical, in wispy sentences that don’t have much weight. I can share real stories. I can sort of half-share a real story without sharing too much. I can mention things (improv; my mom) that implies a sense of intimacy without actually sharing anything.
I can make a reader feel something. I can give them something to relate to. I can offer them something in which to see themselves.
I can put the time in. I can type. I can spend part of my day, every day — part of my week; part of my life — putting posts out there. My Mac is only a year old and two of the keys have popped off from typing. And that’s all part of my end of the deal. I can work.
But I can’t decide for you what you want to do. I can’t decide what’s most important.
I can suggest a drink for you, and I can definitely pour it and put it in front of you, but I can’t promise it’s the one you wanted.
I can do my part of the bargain, but I can’t pick up more than you do when “the deal” is more your life than mine.
Decisions in your life are yours and not mine. I can weigh in, I can make suggestions, and I can most definitely back you up — hell, I’ll even jump and say when I think you’re wrong. But I can’t tell you how to live your life. I can’t make these major life decisions for you.
That work must first and foremost, by design, at least first fall on you.
Just like “love” being an and a successful relationship hinging on always “feeling” like it. Lol, it doesn’t.
We all get irritated with our partners sometimes. We all fade in and out in the intensity of our feelings. And some days, we don’t feel like it.
And the point is: it doesn’t matter.
I didn’t feel like writing today.
It took me an hour to decide what to write because I didn’t want to write bullshit that didn’t reflect where I was mentally, but I also didn’t have anything more revealing to say, so I was sort of stuck, because all I’m really experiencing is a kind of mild okayness and not a ton of conviction about anything in any one way. I just want to sit and be still.
“Some days, you don’t have anything. Some days, you don’t knock it out of the park.”
And as Leo Babauta writes of one of his “not great” days,
“On a day like this, I sat still. It was all I could do. I looked inward… I stayed with it, just giving it my attention. It wasn’t so bad. Everything was OK. Not brilliant, but not so bad.”
And what he realized — what we all realize on days like these — is:
“Some days, you have nothing, but that’s OK.”
Doing things isn’t based on waiting for feelings.
And the answer, on any day like this, is twofold:
With regard to the things you must do, you must do them. In fact, on days like these more than any other, it is imperative that you get out of bed, leave the apartment, and write the blog post — anything to keep you moving forward, however slowly.
Go gently, however, and honor yourself even while moving. You don’t have to be cruel or dismissive; you don’t have to silence. You have to move, but you can do so gently. You can face it, sit with it, stay, and say it by name. You can write it down and say the words, “I didn’t feel like writing.” But you still should.