Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Sit down and wipe off your face!”
Alas, the sticky question is whether or not to enlarge our (human) household. My wife and I are both scientists and thus pessimistic by nature, which seems antithetical to the whole process of having and raising a child. In spite of that and after a great deal of talking and thinking, we decided to give it a try. Attempts were initially successful, but then took a tragic turn. And now, months later, after things have returned to “normal,” the decision is once again looming, seemingly more difficult than before.
My question—how did you make this decision? On the one hand, thinking about having a child seems incomprehensibly magical, albeit in an absurd and bizarre way. A person appears out of thin air, takes over your life and leads you in directions you’d never have thought to go. On the other hand, if I pick up John Gray’s Straw Dogs, as I did this week, I can’t help feeling as if I’m further dooming the human race by adding one more to the ranks. On top of that, there’s the possibility of ever-more-tragic turns. My wife has similar thoughts. How to resolve this? I don’t want to be overly paranoid and fearful, but having a child is about as serious a thing as there is. I realize this isn’t a particularly novel question, but I’ve found it’s often one that people cannot or are unwilling to answer honestly. Thus, I turn to you. What was your thought process? Were you racked by these doubts of doom, both planetary and personal? How did you resolve it?
Hesitant to Procreate
Doom doesn’t rule my thoughts about kids so much as it rules my thoughts about running out to the grocery store. But it’s funny that you mention it, because lately I’ve been reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, god fucking knows why, and now all I think about every night before I go to bed is how horribly bad I’d be at protecting my kids in the case of an apocalypse. Walking through the snowy woods without shoes, feeling hungry and weak, aiming a gun at people’s heads so they don’t eat my kid? Trying to convince my kid that starving for another day is worth it? Reading this stuff makes me want to stockpile morphine, not C-rations and ammunition. I’m not cut out for anything but a climate-controlled, antiseptic, spoiled existence. Hell, I’m not even cut out for that half the time.
Some days, this stuff drags me down into the emotional cellar (where I have no canned peaches stocked). I mean, who even has the intestinal fortitude to read something like The Road, let alone write it? Maybe I’m just old and fragile, but that book offers a brand new existential crisis on every other page. “Do you think that your fathers are watching?” McCarthy writes, when things are going from worse to unthinkable. “That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.”
Motherfucker! This guy’s prose is transcendent, but his outlook is devoid of all meaning or promise beyond the concrete fact of survival.
On the other hand, the concrete fact of survival is something. Because any time I’m tempted to slip down some bleak little rabbit hole, someone needs a sandwich. Somebody’s socks feel scratchy. I make a sandwich. I look for less-scratchy socks. Then I read a story about a duck whose pushy aunts come to stay with him for a few days and drive him crazy.
The Road presents an extreme story about surviving while in a vacuum of good reasons to survive. The guy in The Road only wants to live because he’s keeping his kid alive. I don’t know what my life adds up to half the time. But I put some music on the stereo, and my kids automatically start dancing. Should I be worrying about the apocalypse instead?
I appreciate your very sensitive nose for impending doom, but even if things get a thousand times more bleak, you still have no choice but to sally forth against the tide. You can put your worries about the planet into action and support the causes that might make a difference, sure, but while you’re at it, there’s something to be said for turning off the bad thought patterns and tuning in to the good things around you. Sometimes that means getting as focused and granular about the beauty in your life as you typically are about the ugliness.
Obviously there’s no worse time to contemplate the perils of child-rearing than right after a miscarriage. That’s exactly the sort of experience that can throw you into a doom-flavored black hole. But try very hard to turn it off for one night. Go out to a really nice restaurant with your wife, order a good glass of wine, and talk about your hopes for the future. Hopes, not fears. It’s not unfair to feel grateful, or hopeful. Why the fuck else are we alive? What if the world ended, and starving people with knives were hunting you down, wanting to eat your face off? You’d have to find some scrap of hope, somewhere. And anyway, the world isn’t ending. You’re just fine, and you’re going to have a good life if you can just take a leap of faith and stop worrying about the many, many terrible possibilities.
You want someone to be honest with you about kids? Having kids is the absolute best. It’s satisfying and funny and exciting and only occasionally terrifying, and if you’re smart, you adapt. You learn to block out the constant worries and fears about it most of the time. Kids remind you how to enjoy yourself. They’re a pain in the ass, but they demonstrate the right way to live, too, day in and day out. My prediction is that, in a year or two, you’ll look back at this time and you’ll say to your wife, “I’m glad we didn’t give up.”
Every few weeks, everyone I know gets on my nerves. I’m sure it’s partially hormonal, but I’m irritated to the point where I can barely stand to be around people.
I think because my parents both had major superiority complexes and thought they knew everything about everything, I’ve inherited the same shitty attitude. So whenever I feel down, I look around and feel annoyed with my friends. I wish everyone would stop bullshitting each other and tell the truth for once. I am impatient with the whole world. Everyone is so dull and so completely full of shit.
But I also feel like such an asshole. No one else I know is as much of an asshole as I am. Why can’t I just be patient and stop feeling so pissed off all the time?
Dear Fed Up,
Smart, complicated, crazy people are typically assholes, whether publicly or just on the sly. They feel superior, they feel guilty, they feel angry, they feel like they’re doing everything the wrong way, and then they feel like everyone else is doing everything the wrong way.
Now, from what you’ve written, I’m not sure if you’re angry at your friends because 1) they’re all just as complicated and confused as you are, and so they’re pretty self-involved and high-maintenance and not all that in touch with other people’s experiences or emotions, which makes them pretty fucking tedious on the whole; or 2) they’re simpler and less confused and possibly even happier than you are, which pisses you off not only because you can’t relate to anything they say, but also because you feel quietly judged by them for being relatively negative and pensive. Do you get accused of “thinking too much”? Are you urged to keep things simple in situations where that seems not just inappropriate but flatly bizarre? If so, it may be that you’re struggling to remain friends with people who have trouble understanding you, and who are going to tend to find your perspectives needlessly layered and convoluted and melodramatic.
But you also have to keep in mind that, since your parents thought they were right about everything, they were prone to telling you that you were wrong about everything. In order to be in a conversation with them, you had to either accept that you were totally wrong, or fight them and assert that you were right (about everything) and they were wrong (about everything). As a result, whenever you feel ever so slightly annoyed with someone, instead of thinking, “Oh, Mary is different from me,” you think, “Mary is wrong, wrong, wrong about this.” Then you feel superior. Then you feel guilty. Then you think, “I suck.” Then you think, “Fuck that. Mary sucks.” In other words, you’re thrown into conflict every single time you experience a negative emotion, probably because your parents demonstrated that there’s no mild, reasonable way to communicate when you’re slightly annoyed. If you had negative emotions about anything, that was bad and you, in turn, were bad.
As a fellow asshole, I would like to encourage you to tolerate the fellow assholes in your life (recognizing that they’re similar to you in many ways, even at times when they’re acting the most self-serving or unreasonable). If you don’t know anyone who’s anything like you, though, you should look around for someone who is. These new friends don’t have to be wildly unhealthy, mind you. You’re looking for high-functioning former crazies, or sane people from crazy households, who understand crazy and accept it without, say, quitting their jobs to do heroin around the clock.
Before you hit the road in search of new friends, though, you should do some work on accepting yourself with all of your flaws. Give yourself a break. Most people are much more conflicted than they appear. If you feel guilty every time you feel anything negative, you’re naturally going to turn that guilt into defensive anger at others for not being more like you. You need to practice accepting the real you—the weak, angry, asshole you—and recognizing that that person isn’t that bad, or that uncommonly evil. You’re just a person. Maybe you’re trying to seem a little bit better than you are. (Trying to be better is worthwhile. Trying to seem better can be problematic, because you’re selling the world an alternative version of yourself that you have trouble living up to.)
As you accept your own weaknesses, try to show yourself a little bit more, and you may see that people don’t recoil, they’re actually interested in who you really are. Moving towards a more genuine self also has the benefit of breaking you out of the defensive, egocentric state you’re in. Because, whether or not you’re in need of new friends, one thing is clear: You’re not really listening closely or engaging completely. Allowing people some space to talk and be themselves, without getting judged, is a good way to stop being bored by them. The more you accept who you are, the more interesting you’ll find other people, whether they’re exactly like you or completely different. Because your long-term goal is not to surround yourself with people who match you—that’s just an intermediate stage in the game, meant to pull you out of this self-loathing phase. The ultimate goal is to be able to appreciate and enjoy the company of a wide range of friends. Truly happy, high-functioning people, whether formerly crazy and complicated or not, share this ability to enjoy difference, because their egos and their need to be unconditionally adored aren’t always blocking the way to taking people and experiences as they come.
But even these superhuman types are assholes now and then. We all are. So stop beating yourself up over it.
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Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is our new existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by p-a-t-r-i-c-k.