Lucia’s Birth Story

It has been three weeks since I gave birth, and I think I can say that the recovery has been harder than the labor. This may seem counterintuitive, as everybody says giving birth is one of the most painful things a person can experience. Yet the defining quality of labor for me was not pain, but strength.

Like many others, I assumed that childbirth has always been thought of as painful. After all, the curse of God in Genesis is that woman will have “pain” in childbirth. When reading Natural Childbirth, I encountered an argument I had never heard before. I later checked the Hebrew myself. The word translated as “pain” can also mean simply labor or toil. In fact, the same word is used one verse later to describe how Adam will obtain food from the ground. We do not think of performing agricultural functions as painful, but rather as laborious. This is what Genesis promises of childbirth. We know that farmers are strong; we should expect the same of mothers.

After labor, I came across an incredible quote in a review of Jonathan Haidt’s latest book on the Mere Orthodoxy blog:

Many of the important systems in our economic and political life are like our immune systems: they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow. Systems that are anti-fragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously. . . . [Taleb] notes that wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire. He advises us not to be like candles and not to turn our children into candles: “You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”

So much of our medical system approaches pain as something to be avoided. You have a headache, so you take a pill to get rid of it. You’re going into labor, so you get an epidural. My own medical journey has convinced me that pain is meant to be a sign. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” He was referring to spiritual deafness, but it is apt with respect to our physical health as well. I’ve had many doctors suggest various means to manage the symptoms I was experiencing, but none of them had a means to address the root cause. It was only when I addressed the root cause that the pain went away; the pain prompted me to search for deeper healing, and trying to shortcut that process would have convenient in the short term but ultimately worse in the long run. I realized whatever pain I would experience in labor must have a purpose as well. It may be easier to avoid pain, but by leaning into it, we can increase our tolerance of it.

With this philosophy, I approached pregnancy. I was striving for a natural labor with no epidural.1 I didn’t know the phrase at the time, but I wanted to be the fire and I wished for the wind.

The morning of October 5, I woke up early so that I could drive with Hirav up to his office. Based on a family history of later labors, I had suspected that we would go past 40 weeks. So I wasn’t too worried about planning a dinner in the city with Hirav’s cousins. I had felt a few contractions on the ride up, but they were incredibly mild. I had experienced Braxton Hicks contractions (i.e. the fake ones) both times we had long flights during pregnancy, and these contractions weren’t nearly as bad as those ones. Around 10:30, I started realizing the contractions were coming more consistently. There were happening every 5-10 minutes and lasting 15-30 seconds. But it wasn’t super consistent – sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 6. They also didn’t feel very strong at all. Hirav came to meet me for lunch and saw these numbers on my laptop. “What are you doing?” he asked, but his eyes said he knew exactly what I was doing. I texted our doula Lauren, who advised waiting a few hours and timing again.

So we went about our day. I went to the Yelp Christian Fellowship meeting with Hirav over lunch where we did lectio divina. John 3:1-21 felt particularly relevant, with its discussion of being born again. Little did I know that Lucia was getting ready to be born for the first time! Then I went and ran some errands. I returned an item to my old friend George who works in the city. I went over to East Bay to return some leftover eco-friendly stain to the hardware store. I stopped in a Starbucks to do some GRE studying. In the Starbucks, I realized I should start timing again. The contractions were closer to four minutes apart, still 15-30 seconds in length until there was a 20 min gap. Definitely Braxton Hicks, I told myself! I picked up Hirav’s cousin Meghviben from the Bart station and we headed back into the city.


T – 4 hours or so.

On the way, I mentioned that I had been timing the contractions to see if they were real or not. She offered to drive, but the contractions were still barely noticeable. We picked up Hirav and then headed to Dosa to get dinner with Hirav’s other cousin Nikhilbhai, who was visiting from the Dallas area. After about 15 minutes, I noticed the contractions were starting to feel stronger. I began timing again, and Meghviben noticed. After another half hour, I still wasn’t sure. The contractions were sometimes 4 minutes apart, sometimes 8, varying 40-60 seconds in length. I showed my timing to Nikhilbhai, the doctor, and Meghviben, the mother of three, to see if they thought it was consistent enough. They looked at each other and said we should wrap things up quickly. Of course, we paused to take a photo before hopping in the car.

So we started driving home. I was texting Lauren to let her know we might need her tonight. My OB had said to come to the hospital when contractions were 5 minutes apart, 1 minute in length, for 1 hour. There was a short time where the contractions were 5 min apart and 1 min in length, but it didn’t last an hour. In the car, they became 4 minutes apart, 45 seconds in length, and around the same intensity. By the time, we were home, they were more like 3 minutes apart and 30 seconds in length. I never exactly hit the 5-1-1 I was looking for, so I didn’t fully realize how close I really was.

At home, there were a few things I wanted resolved. We had some boxes that hadn’t been taken down to be recycled yet. I had taken out some kitchen supplies I was planning to have Hirav put on a top shelf over the weekend. Normally I don’t boss Hirav around, but he knew this was one of those times when he should just do what I was asking. When we first got home, I put on my labor playlist full of relaxing movement. But I quickly realized that wasn’t what I wanted. Instead, we began singing.

I pulled out the hymnal that JoPo gave me in college and we sang as we picked up the apartment. We sang “Sanctuary” and recalled all of Damaris’s beautiful solos during Doxa. We sang “Take My Life” and I remembered Abigail’s beautiful renditions – of which my singing was a poor imitation. I sang “Our God, He is Alive” and thought of Allie Wunderlich and my time in the churches of Christ. With every note and every step, I was reminded of the beauty of God and the incredible journey he had taken me on.

I was content to keep going on, but Hirav began to notice subtle changes. At first, I couldn’t sing through the contractions. Then I stopped being able to walk through the contractions. “Do you think we should call Lauren?” he asked. I wasn’t sure. We never hit that 5-1-1 pattern. The pain, though getting worse, was still pretty manageable. But it seemed like this was the real deal by now, so we decided to call. I was bent over the couch, on my hands and knees. Hirav began stroking my back through the contractions, which helped a lot.

Then, I felt something that I had never felt before but that I knew immediately from every description of it: the urge to push. I realized I had perhaps waited too long. I ran the numbers in my head – this phase of labor would probably last 30 minutes minimum. The hospital was 5 minutes away. Based on her location I suspected Lauren was just a few minutes away. One contraction later, Lauren had arrived. Emily, a new doula who was shadowing her, arrived as well. After two more contractions I looked at Lauren and said we needed to go to the hospital. Hirav grabbed our bag, but there were a couple of things that we couldn’t pack up until the day we needed it (like my portable speaker or his CPAP machine to sleep).

“We’ll just wait for Hirav to pack up and then we’ll go,” Lauren said. “Could you drive me instead? Hirav can follow when he’s done,” I suggested. She immediately knew this was serious. We headed out the door as the contractions grew stronger.

We stopped in the hallway. HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. I grunted loudly as the wave of a contraction hit. Lauren bent over. “Lean on me” she said. The wave passed and we kept going. Down the elevator. Down the street.

I paused. HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. I leaned on Lauren. I wondered what the neighbors must be thinking. We got into the car and sped off. Fortunately, our hospital was just 5 minutes away. We hopped out and began walking to the labor and delivery elevator. The security guard asked if we wanted a wheelchair. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted less.

HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. We paused again. I leaned on Lauren. We made it to the elevator. HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR in the elevator. We were at L&D.

The nurse said, “before we take you in, we need you to fill this out quickly.” It was a half-sheet form. I looked at her with an “are you kidding?” expression and she said, “your doula can do it.” “That’s OK” I said and began filling it out. I made it through my name and social security number, but gave up at the address. “You have the rest,” I said. She complied and we headed down the hallway.

HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. We paused. I whispered to Lauren that I felt the burning. In the descriptions of natural labor, women describe feeling “a ring of fire.” Again, I knew immediately from the description that this is what was happening. We were very close.

We made it to the room, but the hospital was so busy it wasn’t ready. A slew of nurses filed in and began arranging things. They hadn’t closed the door or the privacy screen, but I dropped my pants and hopped on the bed. I faced the wall and stayed on my hands and knees. I’m normally a modest person, but instincts took over. I knew what I needed to do.

The order here is a little fuzzy.

“Can we check you?” they asked. They wanted to know how far dilated I was. They started to check, but it hurt worse than the contractions did. “That hurts, can you please stop?” I asked. So they did. I didn’t need them to tell me I was 10 cm and ready to push. I knew I was ready to push.

“Did you test positive for Group B Strep?” another nurse asked.2 “Yes,” I said. “We need to do antibiotics,” she replied. “No.” I knew in that moment that we had less than the 4 hours needed for antibiotics to be most effective, and I couldn’t even imagine processing them trying to put an IV in at that moment.

“Did your water break?” they asked. “I’m not really sure,” I replied. I knew that water breaking can take the form of a slower leak, and I felt like that might have happened.

Another nurse tried to strap the fetal monitors around my belly, but that also felt weird and a little painful. “That’s uncomfortable. Can you not do that?” I asked. The nurse was clearly uncomfortable, but agreed. She held the monitors to my belly instead.

My water broke. It was very clear. I felt a big gush and it running down my legs. Now I knew what that felt like as well.

Meanwhile, with each contraction, Lauren was rubbing my back like Hirav had been. In the pauses between contractions, she wiped my face with a cold damp cloth. Each contraction was certainly painful, but I didn’t realize that the moments in between contractions would be basically pain free. It was bizarre to go from totally immersed in a contraction – the urge to push, the burning feeling, sensing the head dropping lower and lower – to feeling total normal and like nothing was happening.

At some point, Hirav arrived and put on my labor playlist. The angelic melodies of the Benedictines of Mary filled the room in between my grunts. In the pauses, I appreciated the calming music. A nurse would pull him aside to have him complete the intake. Fortunately, Lauren had given us a list of questions in advance so we were well-prepared.

Dr. Hoff arrived. “Can I check you?” he asked. “Sure.” But again, it was too painful. “That hurts. Could you please stop?” I asked. So he stopped. “How far along is she?” the nurse asked. “You know, I’m not used to this position. I’m not really sure…” he said. “Great…” I thought to myself. At least he would be getting more experience with a woman in this position, I realized.

So it went on for a little while. Pushing hard. Having a calm, cool moment. Pushing hard again. It was a confusing feeling, as I could sense the head coming down with the contraction and then getting pulled up again with the pause. As we neared the end, I was getting tired. I didn’t want the head to keep going back in again. I just wanted the baby out! Finally there was a pause where the head didn’t pull back again. I didn’t quite know what to do with that. So the head was held there, and with another contraction or two, the head finally came out all the way. Once the head was out, the rest of the baby – the shoulders, the belly, the feet – slide right out. I could feel all the different parts pass through: the pointy width of the shoulders, the softness of the belly, the legs long and together like a fin. Lucia was born at 11:51 am on October 5, 2018.

Hirav cut the cord.

Hirav said she burst out. He saw the head, turned away for a moment, and the entire baby was there. I tore off my shirt as they wiped the baby off quickly. When they placed her on my chest for skin to skin, I couldn’t believe she was mine. She seemed too big to fit inside me. But I saw the umbilical cord was still attached so I knew she was mine. We had opted for delayed cord clamping so they waited a few minutes before clamping the umbilical cord. Then they handed Hirav a pair of scissors.

Lucia, just minutes after birth.

After cutting the cord, they turned their attention to me. I had a third degree tear which required a lot of stitches. They were also worried I was losing too much blood. Dr. Hoff wanted me to take pitocin to reduce the bleeding. All the facts about pitocin and hospital procedures began running through my head. I had no serious concerns about pitocin after labor, but I had just come off a run of saying no to pretty much everything except pushing. Hirav looked at my face, and then looked at the blood. “You’re losing a lot of blood,” he said. I agreed to the pitocin. I was grateful to have such a good husband there in that moment. He knew what I wanted, what we both wanted, and he knew I was just feeling indecisive in that moment. He urged me to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. I lost almost a liter of blood, but I thankfully didn’t require a transfusion.

Next they needed to stitch me up. But even getting the shot of local anesthetic hurt. “Could we wait a little bit?” I asked Dr. Hoff. He had a concerned look, but agreed and disappeared for a bit while the nurses hung out. After 10 or 15 minutes, I asked for him to come back to finish the stitches. Even though you can’t feel the threading because of the anesthetic, you can still feel the string getting pulled through your skin like a piece of cloth. It’s a very weird and uncomfortable feeling. I had Hirav and Lauren squeezing my shoulders through the procedure, which lasted a frustratingly long half hour. The counter pressure helped take the focus off the pain.

I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point, I turned to Hirav and said, “You know, I could do that again.” The nurses looked a bit agape, like “Can you believe this lady?” The doulas also gave one another a look that more resembled amusement. “Maybe I should wait for after the recovery to say that…” I paused.

The nurses left and baby Lucia chilled on my chest for a while. Although some babies actually manage to latch and start breastfeeding in the first hour or two of skin to skin, Lucia didn’t. After a half hour, I realized that her skin was a bit clammy and cold. Lauren went out to go get a nurse. There ended up being 6 births in the hospital that night, so there were no nurses outside. We pressed the call button and a nurse came in. They put Lucia under a warmer in our room. We later realized that the AC had been turned up in the room during labor and this had made both her and I very chilly. She also was such a big baby that she had low blood sugar. She ended up being 9 lbs, 4 oz and 20 inches long. They gave her some formula to help get her blood sugar up, and encouraged me to continue feeding her at the breast and to pump as well.

After we were settled in, the doulas Lauren and Emily went home for the night. They advised that I get some rest. I was concerned, however, that the nurses weren’t coming in to check on us as regularly because things were so busy. Because we hadn’t gotten the antibiotics, I was nervous that no one would be checking her enough for the signs of Group B Strep. So I ended up staying awake most of the night watching her, making sure she was comfortable and checking her temperature every hour or so. She was totally fine.

That afternoon, she was ready for her first family visitors. The next afternoon, we headed home.

In retrospect, I couldn’t have asked for a much better birth. Not everything went according to plan, but most of it was pretty close. I wanted to feel everything and to be able to follow my instincts, and they kicked in just as I had hoped. I wanted to know whether labor was really as painful as everyone said, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. (Until the last hour or two, the pain was about as intense as my last worst bout of IBS-C related abdominal pain. So I think men can probably experience things more painful than labor.) Being able to do something about the pain makes the entire experience more manageable. Knowing that it won’t last forever also helps.

Most of all, I’m grateful for the team of support that I had. I’m grateful for Hirav’s strong hands that massaged me and sound mind that guided me through the labor process. I’m grateful for Lauren and all her wisdom and help, and for Emily’s extra assistance. I’m grateful for Dr. Hoff living so close to the hospital that he still managed to make it to our whirlwind birth. I’m grateful for the Benedictines and their angelic voices, for our friends who were with me in song, for those who wrote such powerful words that granted me peace throughout the labor. I’m grateful to God who created Lucia, and who used my suffering over the past few years to teach me to manage pain rather than to simply avoid it. I’m grateful that God made childbirth a process of labor – that it might manifest my strength as a woman just as tilling the fields may show a man’s power.

In the past few weeks as I’ve been recovering, we watched the movie A Quiet Place. I have concluded that Emily Blunt is my new favorite icon. Many movies are deemed feminist because they show women fighting like men. To me, this is rather anti-feminine because it is forcing women into men’s roles even if they don’t fit. I won’t pretend the average woman can wield a sword with the upper arm force of the average man. I admired Blunt’s performance because she managed to convey the incredible strength and majesty of being a woman with a feminine grace and a calm control. Hers is a quiet strength, no less powerful than her husband’s, but nevertheless different from his as well. Both genders must labor, but in their own unique way.

After giving birth, I emerged feeling that I could do anything. Labor was a strong wind to ignite the fire within. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his cousin John the Baptist, saying, “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (Jn 5:35). I share this testimony of Lucia’s birth that I may be a burning lamp as well, giving witness to the grace and power of God.

It is fitting, then, that we named her Lucia which means light in Latin. We chose the name for St. Lucia and for Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Her middle name is Amantia means loving and was chosen to honor my maternal grandmother. We hadn’t been certain of the middle name, but Hirav felt in the hospital that she was a Lucia Amantia. I like to think it’s because she looked like a grumpy hedgehog just like my ornery grandma. In these few short weeks, Lucia Amantia has already brought much light and love into our world.

[1] Why I Wanted to Avoid an Epidural

My medical history made me very concerned about the prospect of an epidural. For one, I have had a pretty severe aversion to needles since childhood. Although it has gotten much better in recent years, I nevertheless have a history of fainting and even seizing around needles. In recent years, the fainting has been confined to blood draws while fasting and with larger draws, but I was still apprehensive about the epidural because it would require being hooked up to an IV during labor. Secondly, I have been on medical journey the past three years that has made me feel a reasonable amount of anxiety about being in the hands of medical professionals. I have been misdiagnosed, had symptoms patronizingly dismissed, and been given bad advice from a number of different specialists.

One moment that particularly stood out was the first time I had a severe allergic reaction that required hospitalization. I had passed out in the street on the walk home with my roommate Amy. She called an ambulance and on the ride to the hospital, I was passing in and out of consciousness. There are three distinct memories I have from that day. First, in the ambulance, I specifically told the EMT that I wanted to go to Cambridge Hospital. I made this choice because it was closer to my apartment so it would be easier to get home afterward. The EMT told me “Mass Gen is really better for this kind of stuff.” Highly suggestible in that state, I said “fine” before conking out again. One thing worth noting is that Mass Gen is also more expensive than Cambridge Hospital. Although I had decent insurance, that single trip to the ER ended up wiping out a good chunk of my savings that year (almost 10% of my salary post tax).

I woke up again in the hospital and overheard the doctor asking my roommate questions. On the walk, we had been discussing why I was feeling so itchy and my medical history. She was the doctor’s best source of information at that point, but the doctor didn’t seem to listen to her. The doctor asked her whether there was any possibility I was pregnant. My roommate said “no, absolutely not” since she knew I was not sexually active. The doctor seemed disinclined to believe her. I mumbled back “immaculate conception” – which I seemed to find much funnier than the doctor did. [I’m sorry, theologian friends. I know I should have said virgin birth for utmost accuracy, but I wasn’t exactly myself.] The doctor asked me what I had eaten that day and I told her. She said “it must be the almonds” that were in my salad. I told her that didn’t make any sense as I ate a lot of almonds in my office almost every day.  By my admittedly hazy recollection, she didn’t respond to this or offer any other suggestions.

I was afraid of an epidural because I was concerned that I would be more suggestible in that state. As I thought more about the birth, I realized that I no longer feel safe in the hands of doctors. That’s not to say that I don’t trust doctors – Hirav and I know so many physicians that we respect greatly. It’s just that I’ve come to learn very intimately how fallible doctors can be and I like asking questions because doing so can help an expert reach better conclusions. Ultimately, I felt that a birth without pain medication would leave me in better control of my medical decisions and less susceptible to suggestion.

I also wanted to avoid a C-section unless it was absolutely necessary. The C-section rate in California is over 30%: the World Health Organization recommends a rate of 10 to 15%. I worried that nudge factors in the hospital would make me more likely have a C-section, especially if I had a bad reaction to the epidural needle. Hirav and I hope to have many more children, so it seemed particularly prudent to have a vaginal birth to kick things off. If I had a C-section this time, I would have to fight harder to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) for the next 3+ pregnancies. After much consideration, we decided to hire a doula to help reduce our risk of C-section and to help play the role of slowing down the decision making process (i.e. helping us question the experts to reach optimal decisions).

[2] Group B Strep and Birth Plans

We’ve mentioned having a birth plan to a few friends. The common reaction is “birth doesn’t go according to plan!” That reaction makes sense if you think a birth plan is something like “and then labor will last 10 hours and I’ll get the epidural when I’m exactly 7 cm dilated” and so forth. But a birth plan is more like a contingency plan where you think through your priorities and goals. For us, the birth plan included some medical decisions that were certain – such as skipping the erythromycin ointment since we had zero risk of siphyllitic or gonherral blindness. (As a public health decision, this makes more sense because patients may be engaging in risky behavior and not reporting it.)

Another part of the plan that was nearly guaranteed to happen was Hirav cutting the cord. Other parts of the plan were more like values that we had: we only want a c-section if it is medically necessary. We would prefer intermittent monitoring over constant monitoring. Because I tested positive for Group B Strep, we would be getting antibiotics for sure if I gave birth before 39 weeks. By thinking through these questions in advance, we weren’t surprised by anything that happened in the labor and delivery room. We weren’t making major decisions on the fly, but had considered what circumstances would cause our priorities to shift.

Of course, the labor process didn’t go exactly as planned. For example, Hirav had planned during the early part of labor to take a break to get animal fries from In-N-Out, but we weren’t sure if I really was in labor until we had already eaten dinner and Hirav had no room for animal fries. (Don’t worry, he got them on the ride home from the hospital!) We had planned to get the antibiotics, but I was already pushing when I arrived at the hospital. I knew this meant we had less than 2 hours before baby would be born. In that moment, I felt I wouldn’t be able to handle the insertion of an IV for antibiotics. I knew I needed to focus on pushing. But because I had done my research, I also knew that the antibiotics wouldn’t be as effective with less than 4 hours. That gave me a greater confidence in asking them to not administer the antibiotics as planned. We would just have to do closer monitoring post-labor, which is recommended for women who get less than 4 hours of antibiotics. I had also been taking probiotics that were found in one study in Taiwan to reduce Group B Strep in pregnant women before labor. We were hoping to retest at the 39 week appointment to see if I could avoid the antibiotics. I’m grateful now that we had this plan in place, even if I can’t be sure the probiotics really helped.

After our experience, I would recommend that every pregnant woman write up a birth plan. The greatest plans of mice and men may oft go awry, but you can plan to adapt as well. You outline what your options and preferences are in advance so you aren’t shocked or making as big of decisions during one of the biggest moments of your life.


Statistics and Peacemaking

Talking today about race is polarizing, to say the least. And I enter the fray with caution. There have been many valid points, from over-criminalization to the over-militarization of police, from the high rates of lead poisoning in Baltimore to the meditations on dreams deferred.

But there’s one point that I haven’t heard, that I think could help explain part of the chasm between the two sides on this issue, and I hope that highlighting its role can help explain why our perceptions differ so much. This could then serve as a starting point for agreement in a place where compromise seems difficult.*

If racism is a poison, it is more like nuclear radiation than lead: even a small dose of it causes serious, immediate harm, and its effects last generations. Or, to use a more old-fashioned metaphor, a little bit of leaven leavens the whole lump.

Take an incident at Harvard in 2007 in which police came to check on an activity hosted by black students during reading period. They had been called – whether because of a “noise disturbance complaint” or because some residents thought that certain “students looked like they didn’t belong” – and left after the organizers showed them their permit to host the event. There was an email thread – to which I am not privy – that shared similar concerns. I honestly don’t know enough to say whether it was racially-motivated or not, but that’s not my point in this post.

Let’s assume it was racially motivated. It takes just 1 call to the police (maybe 5 emails from students) for dozens of black students to experience racism. There are over 360 people in Cabot House. Even if less than 2% of those people are racist, dozens of people will experience racism.

That’s not to justify the racism, or to suggest that it’s not a problem. Take another problem facing a smaller portion of our society: homelessness. A lot of people think that homelessness works like a bell curve. Most people might be homeless for a few weeks, but most will find a home within a week or within a few months. This perception is totally wrong. The real graph looks more like this**:

Days of Homelessness

The actual curve is actually more like a hockey stick. Most people who are homeless are homeless for a very short period of time, with a small but significant portion staying homeless for a long time. The cost of homelessness actually looks like a hockey stick in the opposite direction. Under a bell curve, you would expect that most costs would go toward paying for people near the mean. Instead, most costs go toward paying for the small number of chronically homeless people.

Cost to the State

Even though the area under the curves is similar (meaning they would cost the state approximately the same), the source of the cost is totally different. Under a bell curve, most of the cost comes from individuals equally distributed. Under a hockey stick curve, most of the cost comes from a few chronically homeless individuals. This is why solutions like the one proposed in Utah, which seek to house the chronically homeless, have proven cost-effective: it’s cheaper to give each one a caseworker and an apartment than to keep shuttling them in and out of the hospital.

Saying that the source of the cost is actually a smaller number of people is not to minimize the very real cost of homelessness to our society, but it is to come one step closer to finding a solution.

I suspect people are so polarized because when they think about problems like this, they imagine that they follow a typical bell curve. We think that if 50% of black people assert that they’ve had a racist experience with a cop, then they’re saying roughly 50% of cops are racist. This doesn’t match with the white experience, so we’re inclined to reject it out of hand. But if it’s a hockey stick instead of a bell, that means that it could take only 2% of cops being racist for 50% of blacks to experience racism first or second-hand at the hands of the police. A small number of bad cops cause a disproportionate number of racist incidents.

Imagine that the curve is like this instead:

Disproportionate ImpactThe areas under the curve are similar: a large number of people experience racism. But in one, the racism is widespread and equally distributed. In the other, a small percentage of bad cops have a hugely disproportionate impact in creating lots of racist encounters.

Malcolm Gladwell says that research discovered the same thing in investigations of the LAPD after Rodney King: “People thought it was a kind of institution-wide problem. Until you look very closely at the incidents of complaints against officers. And what you discover is a small number of officers account for an overwhelming percentage of the complaints against the LAPD. The average cop in the LAPD is fine.”

It may seem callous in a time when so many are hurting, when thousands are marching and looting, to talk about statistics. Yet I think in these statistics could lie our hope for a form of reconciliation.

In these numbers, we see how both perspectives can be right at the same time. Blacks are right that they are disproportionately being singled out by police and are regularly experiencing racism. Yet whites are also right that many people are not racist and many police officers are respectable, upstanding members of society. Both sides are probably mis-estimating – either on the number of bad cops (or bad departments) or on the amount of racism actually experienced.

Many of my white peers are loathe to start prosecuting police more, because they recognize how difficult it is to be a police officer and they respect that imperfect decisions can be made in the heat of a life-threatening situation. If the situation in Baltimore and Ferguson is anything like the situation in Los Angeles, however, greater accountability of the police will not lead to significant changes for most police officers. It will simply mean a weeding out of the few bad apples who are causing most of the problems.


* I know from my friends that many will say that this doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t deal with the real forms of institutionalized racism, aesthetic stigma, or historical racism that can only have amends made via reparations. And I’m willing to listen to those conversations. But we’re so polarized that I doubt either side would simply consent to the demands of the other. I’m trying to stake out here something that I think both sides could easily agree on.

** I am not a statistician. If you have any suggestions for how to explain this better, or a better way to title the graphs, please let me know. If you are a statistician, I would encourage you to do real research on this! My numbers are, admittedly, a back of the envelope estimation. Getting real numbers here would help.

New Year, New Job

2014 was a very unusual year, and I neglected my blog as I adjusted to many big changes. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but one of my goals for this year is to start writing more reflections on this blog.

Life update: I had been working with the children’s group at a local church, but they caught on fairly quickly that my gifts might lie elsewhere. Last week, I started working with the Friday night college ministry, and with their afternoon Sunday school for their high school students.

One of the most challenging things for me is that I’m facing a group of students who, by and large, have grown up in the church. Given my background, I’m much better at talking to atheists. I get where they are coming from; I know how to talk to them about God. Most of the time, the God they don’t believe in is a God I don’t believe in either! They don’t believe in a God who delights in torture, who defies any logic, who allots salvation like Willy Wonka apportioned golden tickets – utterly at random – and neither do I. We have something in common.

Talking to Christian students is much more challenging, because instead of not believing in a bad God, they tend to believe the wrong things about the right God. And even if they believe the right things about God, those right things often get left at the church doors on the way out. I’m honestly a little intimidated by the prospective of figuring out how to help these students grow.

As I’ve gotten to know this church, I’ve learned a couple of things that worry me. First of all, it’s a church mostly of immigrants, which sometimes signals that members’ sense of belonging to the church may be less focused on faith in Christ and more on finding ways to preserve their culture. Secondly, I surveyed the middle schoolers and found that many (though not all) of the students do not feel God’s presence in the church. That is, for them, the primary experience they have at church is of a community revolving around a particular culture (Chinese) and obligation (my parents will be upset with me if I don’t come). Thirdly, the college students who had a connection to another Christian group (like Intervarsity) seemed on average more invested / spiritually mature than the ones who were only attached to the church. Of course, it was one of those Intervarsity guys who – when asked what book of the Bible he would like to discuss – chose Song of Songs. So maybe my judgments are entirely off-base.

One of the groups would sometimes do an activity called “highs” and “lows” in which they would share a high point and a low point of their week. I think all church groups should have moments like this – times in which we collectively share what’s going on in our lives so that we can stay in touch and offer support during more challenging periods. But after my first “high” and “low,” I realized that it’s a great exercise to build community generally, but not necessarily a great exercise to build a distinctly Christian community. (I think my high was that I started playing Clash of Clans with my family, which bought me street cred with the middle schoolers until they realized I was playing the old version. So I’ll be the first to admit that I failed at spiritualizing this exercise.)

I decided for both the college and high school groups, I’m going to replace “highs” and “lows” with something similar, but different. I’m asking each person to share something that God did in their lives in the previous week. I want to help them develop a sacramental vision to see that God lies beyond the doors of our church, that what they do in the daily rhythm of their lives matters to God, and that if they truly believe what they sing on Sunday mornings, it should offer them comfort and guidance throughout their week.

The first exercise with the high schoolers illuminated the variations in maturity. A couple of the older, more mature students were very insightful (God showed them the importance of helping their grandmother, inspired them with gratitude, or challenged them). One boy said frankly, “all I did last week was sleep, eat, and play video games.” About half the answers were a weekly recap without reference to God. But I hope as we practice this new exercise, they start to develop the vision that lets them see God’s fingerprints in the world around them.

As for me? Well, on the drive to church in the morning, I had settled that I would share about how a talk with two non-Christian friends reminded me that I need to (a) get over my obsession with being “right” about politics and listen better to move conversation to deeper things and (b) spend more time rethinking my political views in light of Christ. I had intended it to be a reminder that God works through everyone – even those who have different religious beliefs from us.

God had another plan. After the morning service, my church offered a morning class on marriage from an older couple I’d gotten to know on my first visit. They seem like a lovely family, and I seemed to get along with the wife as well as the husband (finally!). At the class, the wife shared some of the struggles they had gone through during their 39 years of marriage. She and I shared some uncanny similarities, and I talked to her afterward. It turns out that we processed in very similar ways, and she gave me some advice that will help me figure out how to resolve conflicts in my current relationship better. This came the morning after my boyfriend and I had gotten into an argument of sorts, and it was clear that something needed to change. It brought tears to my eyes to talk to this woman who shared my struggles but had persevered through them. She helped me to see the ways that I need to change, helped me to remain humble, and served as the sign I had prayed for the night before.


Some would say, of course, that it was mere coincidence. I can’t prove that it wasn’t. But with sacramental vision, we can see God’s handiwork in even the most ordinary of things. I pray that God will help grow in my students the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Lessons in Humility

A letter to a good friend, who is struggling to manage coworkers without getting angry at them for being “stupid.”

Dear Theophilus,

When I was in the 7th grade, my history teacher made us write poems on the virtues as part of a medieval-style morality play. If I remember correctly, I was assigned humility. Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I don’t think this would surprise any of my friends who knew me during those early years.

But during that transition period during my freshman year of college, C.S. Lewis taught me that one of my biggest vices was pride. In fact, he said “pride leads to every other vice.” If I wanted to develop character, I needed to cultivate the virtue of humility. The problem is, of course, that it’s rather difficult to “work on” humility. As soon as you start succeeding, you think “I’m so proud of myself for having become more humble” – at which point, you must start the process over again.

One of the most helpful changes I made to improve my humility was influenced by psychology research. Psychologists use a term called attribution bias to describe how we’re inclined to attribute blame for others’ behavior on themselves or their character, while we attribute blame for our own behavior to our environment or circumstances. That sounds a little bit convoluted; the examples are more obvious.

“That person didn’t know this because they’re an idiot!” = attribution to person

“That person didn’t know this because they weren’t taught it in a good way” = attribution to situation

Most people have a self-serving bias, that is, they attribute negative qualities to others based on being a bad person, while attributing negative qualities or actions of oneself to the situation. “They lost the game because they sucked” vs. “I lost the game because the ref made a bad call.” And our bias for positive qualities is equally self-serving. We take the exact opposite with good qualities – for ourselves, we attribute good things to positive character while for others we attribute good things to their environment. We’re more likely to say, “I scored well on that test because I’m a hard-worker who studied hard” rather than, “I scored well on that test because my dad taught me to value education.” For others, we often will say, “she’s just nice because she doesn’t have to deal with all the idiots I have to deal with” instead of saying, “she’s nice because she is just a nice person.”

I think it’s interesting to note that the more we like a person, the more willing we are to attribute positive things to their character. Maybe that’s why the adage goes “love others as you love yourself.” When we love other people, we treat them more like we treat ourselves. We offer up a them-serving bias just like our self-serving one.

Part of my process of learning humility involved deliberately trying to acknowledge what other factors might be in play in the behavior of others, and what parts of my own behavior were caused by lapses of character and not merely situations. This is why I’m sympathetic to a lot of the conversation about privilege – because it acknowledges the untold ways my situation has benefited me – and hostile toward one aspect of it – the part which also feels wrongly deterministic, making all outcomes caused by situations rather than people.

When I recognize all the manifold ways I have benefited from my situation (good parents, good grandparents, decent money, an incredible set of friends, a rich library), it forces me to be grateful for all the blessings I’ve been given instead of taking pride in my own character. When I confront situations where I’ve performed negatively, I try to acknowledge my own character lapses rather than simply attempting to shift blame to my situation. This doesn’t have to be 100% – so many situations are part character and part environment. (Like that other situation we were in – it was partly because I was tired and partly out of a good intention, but also partly because I lacked self-control and have needed to work on that element of my character more for a while now.) But I find that mentally trying to reverse the order of attribution helps me to have a less self-serving bias. It gives me the eyes to see what I need to see about myself so that I can change when I need to change.

Similarly, when I work with others, I try to assume that they have been influenced by their situation more. That person who hurt my feelings didn’t learn about the virtue of charity that I learned. That student who struggles with logical reasoning didn’t have a philosophy professor as a father like me. Or even – that person who should know this mathematical concept just doesn’t have as good of brain for these types of things. (Again, maybe they didn’t have a dad teaching them the wonder of mathematics!) That way, when I teach something to someone, I’m not mad at them for being stupid. I just assume there is another explanation (or I attribute their stupidity to worse genes). Then I don’t feel better about myself when I have to explain something to them, or to teach them something. It all just becomes about “paying forward” the advantages that I’ve been giving, about becoming a part of a good environment to help them become their best self. And that challenges me more than it challenges them.

I hope this helps you with your situation at work. But don’t tell me if you think you’re getting better at humility; remember it was just because you got a really somewhat helpful letter from a friend.

Grace and peace,

Overcoming Introversion

The newcomer’s class at church has finally ended. This has had two repercussions:

1. I arrived at church half an hour late, since the classes started half an hour after the 9am service and I was used to the earlier time. (D’oh!)

2. I have begun attending the 9am service (at least, the second half of it…) instead of the 7:30am or the 11am, which means I didn’t know most of the people there.

If anyone knows the cartoonist of this, I will probably attribute it... the image was too small to read the name. :(

After services, there is always a gathering time outside on this wonderful pavilion beside the church. They serve coffee, tea, and bagels, and ask people to give if they can. I’m a huge fan of this approach, because I think communal gathering around food is a great way to build community and to make people feel welcome.

Even so, I tend to get a little bit nervous (cagey?) in large crowds. Most people wouldn’t suspect this; years of training in public speaking helped me to overcome my instinctive shyness. Lately this church has been drawing it out of me, though. The priests are very nice and welcoming as they shake your hand on the way out, but once you walk out, it’s an invariable no man’s land.

The landscape:

1. The circle formed around one of the priests or deacons. They have to be polite to you, but they also seem to try to talk to more people, so you’re only guaranteed a short conversation before you’ll be cast into the sea again.

2. The circle with the one person you know. Of course, the one person you know is always in charge of something or another (kids, greetings), so they’re most likely talking to someone about something more important than you have to say.

3. The dozen circles with no one that you know. They’re at church, so they probably be nice to you. But they also probably already know each other. So if you go up, you’ll have to introduce yourself to all of them. Then you’ll ask them to tell you a little bit about themselves, and as you do, one by one they’ll dwindle off, since they know each other’s stories. Then you may get stuck again.

4. The line for coffee / tea. This can be a good one, since you can generally pick off people one-by-one. Of course, you risk them immediately bee-lining for a circle after they’ve picked up their beverage. But maybe by telling them that you’re new, you generally can make them feel sorry enough for you to stay for a bit.

5. The other few stragglers. One is at a table, on her phone. Is she doing something important? Playing Clash of Clans? Trying to look busy so she doesn’t feel awkward about being the only person not talking to anyone else? It’s probably not worth interrupting. Another is lurking just a pace from the group, gazing at it with some mixture of confusion and disdain. Is he an introvert, too? Simply misanthropic? An unrepentant serial murderer?

The last time I faced this, I just left. I couldn’t handle the pressure of re-introducing myself again, and I was going to a movie event for the ladies’ group, so I figured I’d break even for my church social time.

This Sunday, I decided to strike up a conversation with the other lurker standing by the coffee table. He was an older gentleman, and seemed more introverted, so I thought it wouldn’t be too bad. He ended up being one of the older science-y types. The conversation was saved when his wife came over – she was also a scientist! – and we had a long chat about science and faith and philosophy. I always end up with a bit of terror at the start of these things, but once the talking begins, I find myself glad for having overcome it. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

It is, however, a lesson that even when the church isn’t really clique-y, it can still be very alienating to introverts. I’m sure if you introduced yourself to the people in any of the circles, they would be friendly and welcoming. But even so, it takes a great deal of courage and dedication for an introvert to begin the process of joining the community in this type of setting.

Joining the little old church ladies…

Yesterday was my first time going to a Bible study group at my new church. (I wasn’t slacking – they were cancelled for the summer.) Since I’m doing tutoring on most weeknights, the only one that works for me is on Thursday mornings. Of course, most people my age are working Thursday mornings, so my group ended up being predominantly women over the age of 60 – i.e. the church grandmothers.

Now I’ve just come from a very secular, college-heavy area. The average age in my last church small group was probably 25, the oldest person was 32. So I was understandably filled with glee to finally be hanging with a whole hoard of older Christian women dedicated to their faith. The hens were clucking about the relaunch of the church’s “Women’s Guild” – apparently this is just their term for a group for all the women in the church, to practice fellowship and service. (The middle-aged priest informed me that the term “guild” was more popular in the 1950s. One woman kindly told me it was just like an auxiliary. I chuckled. Note to self: this is how they must feel when their grandchildren talk about “selfies.”)

One trend that’s affecting churches and broader American society is fairly severe age segregation. You go to school with people your age, you go to college with people your age, you work with people your age, you raise families and interact with the parents of your childrens’ friends, you die slowly in a retirement home. The Boston Globe had an interesting article on the problem a few weeks ago:  They focused on age segregation as a function of geographic location. As someone who lived in New England (albeit in a college setting) for 6 years, I can attest to the fact that just because you live right next to someone of a different age doesn’t mean you’ll actually engage with them, especially because the groups often have such different interests and priorities.

Ending age segregation requires intentionality, not mere proximity. I love the picture this article paints though: “seniors in retirement homes benefit when they spend time reading to children and playing with them, while young people are given the chance to absorb wisdom and life experience.” All of this age segregation is actually denying us the power that communities unlock. “It takes a village…” they say.

[My parents always cast some doubt on this phrase. I think it’s because they only had me. My village were my books, and if my parents had needed to write books to keep up with my pace of reading, they would probably be more inclined to agree with the proverb.]

roman-paintings-womenwomen-in-the-bible--june-2010-2f0k69soSo I’m pretty excited to become a part of this community and to get to know the old church ladies. The most exciting thing is that we’re going to vote in a bit for what to study after we finish 2 Samuel. Judith petitioned for the apocrypha, and I seconded the motion. After all, I said, I want to learn the story of Judith!

Spoiler alert: it involves a future old church lady and a sword.

Speaking into the Hook-up Culture

Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf makes a good point about how Christians should talk about sex. He was raised Catholic, but I don’t gather he’s particularly religious himself. Yet he poses the hypothetical: if I were a Christian campus minister, what would I say to a group of college students about sex?


Hello again, everyone. You didn’t expect to spend your first day of college listening to a Christian minister talk about sex…Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

If you really try to be good to one another, if you earnestly question what that moral code demands and grapple your way toward answers, you may not always like what your reason and conscience tell you. It may tell you to stop slowly taking that person’s clothing off even though they haven’t said to stop. It may tell you that you need to stay in the room with a friend who’d clearly rather be alone with an intoxicated date. Students are at greater risk of sexual assault at parties where there’s drinking going on. Does that mean anything for your behavior if you’re obligated to be good to your fellow students? Do you stay sober, or drink less and keep an eye on those who drink more, or serve only beer, not hard alcohol, when you host, or throw a substance-free party?

You’ll need to decide. What’s truly best for my classmates, and what does it demand of me?

Some students will become depressed after hooking up with someone who doesn’t reciprocate the emotional intimacy they sought. Does that fact affect you? How? There’s always a chance that sexual intercourse will result in a sexually transmitted disease or the creation of a new life. What does that imply, if anything, about your own sexual behavior as you try to be good to one another?

There are so many situations you’ll face—so many more questions I could pose.

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers, though I hope that you’ll keep your hearts open to the possibility. But if you really wrestle with that question in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, hooking up, whatever you kids call it these days—instead of thoughtlessly acting in whatever way most people seem to be acting—you’re much more likely to do right by others, much more likely to be proud of yourselves, and much less likely to remember your time here without the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others. You’ll also bring about a community with fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer sexual assaults, less depression—just by trying your very hardest to be good to one another!


Four thoughts:

1. It’s almost laughable to imagine a university allowing any religious person to talk to freshmen about sex during orientation. Instead they force students to sit through drivel that could be straight out of a sexed-up afterschool special, and kick Christian groups off campus.

2. Granting that, it’s a bit silly to make this case, because that’s already how so many Christians talk about sex. Their arguments for avoiding sex before marriage always revolve around what it means to truly love other people well and to keep their best interests at heart. That’s why the pro-abstinence group at Harvard was originally named True Love Revolution. Because of course if you love people, you’ll think carefully about how you engage with them sexually.

3. It’s really good to see a secular(?) person acknowledging the ridiculous level of destructiveness and hurt caused by the hook-up culture. (Friedersdorf is one of the most thoughtful and respectful writers on religion I know.) Last year, I was struck by how much secular culture has changed on this question as I watched one of my favorite TV shows – Quantum Leap. It’s an old sci-fi series from about two decades ago, and the protagonist chastised another character for suggesting random sex, saying that it was wrong to have sex with someone you don’t love. This standard – something that falls seriously short of Christian ethics – seemed so quaint and out-dated, as many of my peers wouldn’t even be willing to say that it’s wrong to have a hook-up. Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood is a highly report of a sociological study of many young adults that paints a good picture of how the hook-up culture has proved incredibly damaging to many of them.

4. Friedersdorf concludes by noting that Christians may be saying this, but that others aren’t privy to their conversations. I’m pretty sure I’ve painted something along the lines of this ethic (that opposition to premarital sex stems from love) in every conversation I’ve had about it. The problem is not that Christians aren’t making good arguments; the problem is that our culture is so divided many get their impressions of Christianity from Westboro Baptist church protests and not directly from Christians themselves.