Tag Archives: mental health

Halloween Needs More Death

As Halloween approaches, it brings a tide of childhood memories: handmade princess costumes, the joy of free candy, the rule among my peers to hold our breath when passing a cemetery so we wouldn’t ‘catch’ death. As children, it seemed that simple not to die, and secular America hasn’t outgrown that belief. But by ignoring and hiding death, we remain helpless against our fundamental fear of it. Through my practice of mindfulness meditation I have discovered just how fearful and resistant I am to the concept of death as I develop a mindful approach to facing it.

Thanks to longer lifespans and smaller families, I, like many Americans, have not had a death in my close family in years. The last time I attended a funeral I was ten years old. Three decades after my grandmother died, the mere mention of her name makes me teary. Rarely do I have to confront human mortality, and as a result, I haven’t accepted it.

We treat death as a contagion to which the strong and successful are impervious. Witness the current mania for vampires – e.g., Twilight and The Vampire Diaries – in which the protagonists live forever. It is as though we are above death, and on Halloween we celebrate our conquest, laughing at silly dancing skeletons or telling tall tales of headless horsemen that banish mortality beyond the pale of plausibility; ghosts aren’t real, and by extension, neither is death.

Publications as diverse as Psychology Today and Huffington Post have examined that fear of death and how it hurts us. Such fears can cause anxiety disorders and prolonged mourning, such as the extended grief I have for my grandmother, and they can even prevent people from going to the doctor when they should. But there is a better way: confronting mortality head-on, in a spirit of acceptance. Halloween is a missed opportunity to do just that.

Other societies and religions have embraced death as an inevitable part of life, grappling regularly with, and thus defusing, fear. The ancient Romans made a daily practice of “memento mori,” or “remember death.” At feasts, a skeleton or skull would be present to remind revelers that their levity and good fortune were transient. This didn’t necessarily dampen a good time – it encouraged them to pack in as much fun as they could in the time they had.

Western Europe once adopted memento mori customs. Timepieces, some of which remain from the 16th-19th centuries, included design elements like images of skulls or Latin inscriptions meaning “perhaps the last hour.”

Of course, there is Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, primarily a tradition of Latin cultures and especially important in Mexico. The two-day event combines the celebrations of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). Families gather to remember their dead relatives with sugar skulls, Catrinas (skill dolls), marigolds and the favorite food and drink of the departed. Instead of holding their breath through the cemeteries, they will often hold feasts atop the very graves of family members who have passed on. Similar traditions exist in Asian and African cultures and although Dios de Los Muertos dates back to Aztec culture, it now incorporates symbols of Catholicism, such as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, as well.

In fact, religion is one of the few places we face death today. The impermanence of this life is easier to swallow when it comes with the promise of an afterlife, which faith traditions tend to provide. But even those who don’t believe in an afterlife can benefit from a religious approach to our transience. For instance, Catholics’ liberal display of crucifixes and art depicting martyrdom surround churchgoers (and art museum visitors) with visual reminders of our inescapable fates: if even the exceptionally virtuous and divine die, there really is no out.

There is merit in the requirement of my religion, Judaism, that mourners attend services and recite prayers for deceased relatives daily for 11 months and annually thereafter, keeping death on our minds and calendars. Buddhism and some other schools of meditation advise practitioners to meditate on the inevitability of death, even to contemplate corpses, in order to overcome the painful tension of fear.

As a Jew, I appreciate the rituals of my religion, but I have not found in them a road to accepting my own lot. Meditating mindfully on my own mortality seems to me like the most effective path, facilitating calm and promoting tranquility. That state of mind doesn’t come easily, but I believe that with practice, meditation can help one make peace with the physical limits of the human condition.

Halloween’s clownish skeletons, costumes, and piles of candy sugarcoat mortality, while the frightening ghouls and ghost stories keep it unrealistic – death is either too silly or too supernatural to worry about. Then we drop the topic for the rest of the year, as the dying are hidden in hospitals and hospices, and talk of death seems overwrought.

It would be healthier if we spent Halloween – or some other time, lest we deprive children of candy on this much-loved holiday – meditating on death with an open mind and heart, even working towards welcoming it. Meditation is a practice, not a quick fix, but it can help foster calm coexistence with the knowledge that our end approaches. An excellent book on this topic is Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive by Larry Rosenberg.

On a more practical level, once meditation has facilitated a degree of calm in the face of our own mortality, we should consider matter-of-factly how, like the ancient Romans, each of us personally can make the most of life without taking it too seriously. Because no one here gets out alive.

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Are Children Necessary?

Article first published as Are Children Necessary? on Blogcritics.

Why do many parents insist that having children is indispensable to human fulfillment, when the number of fulfilled childfree adults proves that it clearly isn’t? I considered this question in my first post on this blog, “The Preachers of Parenthood.” I made some speculations about the explanation, but now there is an actual scientific study that offers a new and intriguing explanation: cognitive dissonance.

The study, conducted by two scientists at the University of Waterloo, published in Psychological Science, and reported by Wray Herbert at The Huffington Post, concluded that parents convince themselves that parenthood is a joyous, “don’t miss” experience to avoid their true feelings about it, which may be mixed or even negative. This should give pause to anyone who is on the fence about whether to have kids.

Herbert, a parent himself, makes a fascinating point about the emotional and intellectual gymnastics some parents do to be (or seem) as happy as they are “supposed” to be about parenthood. In the not-so-long-ago past, he notes, “emotional relationships between parents and children were less affectionate…and childhood was much less sentimentalized.” The notion that parenthood should be joyous arose only when children no longer added value to the family economy – implying that parents’ personal fulfillment emerged as a substitute reason for people to keep breeding once the financial incentive disappeared.

Of course this study doesn’t show that all parents are deluding themselves or that they would all be unhappy if they were honest with themselves, though it is worth noting (as the study’s authors do) that “raising children has largely negative effects on parents’ emotional well-being.” For instance, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness that “careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television.” Jennifer Senior reports in New York Magazine that “a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines.” This raises the question whether these studies found a way to cut through the cognitive dissonance that was documented in Psychological Science to reveal deeply-buried dissatisfaction, or whether the parents experiencing cognitive dissonance showed up as happy in the other studies, or whether cognitive dissonance is even the right explanation for the Waterloo findings.

One thing is certain: more studies on parental happiness are to come, and my bet is that they will offer even more affirmation to people who suspect they would prefer a life without kids. Making “non-parenting” more socially acceptable can only increase the choices young adults have in shaping their lives, and that makes me honestly, non-dissonantly happy.

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Secrets of a Childfree Woman

 The conversation about choosing not to have children has moved from isolated listservs into the national press.  The national debate has generated some real support for childfree people and even for their reasons not to have children, such as the study discussed in The New York Times Magazine showing that childfree people are generally happier than parents.

The national discussion has changed my stance in personal discussions about my own choice not to have children.  In the past I felt that I had to be defiant because my choice was so often attacked, whether by family, friends, colleagues, or even mere acquaintances.  It has been affirming to see many of the facts and arguments I often make articulated on a national platform, as though I took a megaphone and blasted critics with the reasons that being childfree is right for me. 

But that is far from the end of the discussion.  Acknowledgement that being childfree is a legitimate choice merely lays the foundation for a much more interesting conversation about the implications and consequences of that choice.  So I will let my guard down, though perhaps only temporarily, and speak honestly and openly about the dirty little secret that we few, happy, childfree have shielded like a chink in our armor.

There are disadvantages to not having children.

Some of them are mundane and probably obvious: no child tax credit, no paid leave from work.  Others are more profound, and paramount among those (at least for me) is that my lifestyle hurts my family.  This is by no means a universal problem for the childfree, some of whose parents are just happy that their children are happy, whether or not they produce grandchildren.  Some of us, though, live with the knowledge that we have disappointed our families by not having kids.  Whether it is because our relatives are certain that one morning, when it is too late, we will wake up drowning in sudden regret that we never reproduced, or because our relatives resent being deprived of babies, we have disappointed them. 

It would be nice if I could dismiss that disappointment as “their problem,” or turn the tables on them by pointing out that they care more about their own wishes than about my happiness – and we are talking about my life here.  But the truth is that, at least for now, I feel like a disappointment to them and that saddens me. 

Another disadvantage to not having children is alienation from peers and community.  Some old friends (thankfully not all) disappear into parenting, losing touch with all that we used to have in common.  I can only hope that when the nest is empty they will return to themselves, and until then, miss them.  At the same time some common avenues for making new friends and for connecting with neighbors are closed to me.  Until I lived it, I never realized how much adults rely on their children to make new friends.  They bond with neighbors over daycare and play dates; they meet and sometimes grow close to their children’s friends’ parents; they may become friendly with their children’s teachers, coaches, piano instructors, etc.; they may even grow closer to their own relatives when a grandparent provides regular daycare or a sibling brings over the little cousins to play together.

So there are two disadvantages to not having children.  That is honestly all I can think of.  They aren’t minor, except in comparison to the benefits I enjoy from being childfree. 

I hope that the public conversation about this subject continues to develop and that both the childfree and parents can discuss the disadvantages of their decisions without condemnation.

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