TLDR: Be mindful of the underlying metaphors that shape your view of relationships. Relationships are not transactions to be balanced out, but collaborative artworks that are infinitely deep. Give selflessly with no expectation of return. Ironically, this is also how you are rewarded with beautiful and deep connections.
My Journey Into Seeking ‘Balance’
I am not sure which came first – my fascination with order or obsession with building card towers. Either way, this childhood hobby created an attraction to balance. I recall many Chinese New Year holidays where I would eye decks of poker cards and make mental notes to squirrel them away as building blocks for my castles and city blocks.
And though I certainly delighted in the splendour of a make-believe cityscape, my deepest absorption was reserved for the delicate balancing act of 2 plain poker cards, repeated ad infinitum.
Years later, this hobby faded away, leaving a faint but indelible psychological imprint. This shaped the way I arranged my academic life, family time and relationships.
My secondary school life was the first proving ground for this worldview. Friendships were cordial, positive and respectful. I excelled in group discussions, where everyone gets proportionate air time. I was a reliable team member in group projects, where I always put in my fair share of work.
Being a natural listener, I made sure to listen and speak in equal measures, I was an easy conversationalist who struck up many acquaintances. Favours were always reciprocated. All these made me an uncontroversial choice for the class monitor, and eventually the consortium council chairperson.
Everything stood in beautiful order, and I played my discrete role in this tower of cards to the tee.
When Balancing Everything Frays
And yet, these neat, clean lines showed signs of fraying. Somehow, I was deeply unsettled in more personal settings like stay-overs and class barbecues, where our roles and lines blurred into a confusing mix of funny personal stories, boyish mocking and crude jokes. This discomfort didn’t entirely stem from a growing sense of moral superiority.
Even as a council chairman, there was an invisible wall that separated me from the rest of my executive committee. This wall thinned during official meetings, thickened in informal work sessions and get-togethers. Was I drawing my boundary lines too thickly and sharply? Could they be drawn any other way?
Someone once told me that life will keep teaching you the same lesson until you learn it. In my case with relationships, the lesson first came in pricks and then bludgeons.
Who Should Pay for The Food?
We were at a Bishan hawker centre filled with the usual lunch crowd. I parked our bags down on a recently vacated table and signalled my girlfriend to buy our lunch. She hesitated a moment and then merged into the crowd. I sensed something was off but brushed it off.
Later, on our walk home, with eyes downcast, she remarked with a touch of resentment that she had paid for our meal.
“I footed the last few bills, isn’t it only fair that we split?”, I protested almost immediately. In my mind, our 2 poker cards had started tipping over, and her paying for our last meal tipped them back into poise. At that moment though, something else hung in the balance.
“Yes, that makes sense dear, but in our relationship, I had expected you to pay for the meals.”, she said softly.
That comment hit a deep, raw nerve, setting off an emotional quarrel about values and equality, a quarrel that did not resolve when we reached her house.
I turned away, fuming, without so much as a goodbye. She later called, apologized for the comment, and we agreed to an uneasy truce that we would split our couple expenses down the middle.
Like a hastily plastered band-aid, this agreement tided us through easy and safe couple activities over the next few weeks but tore apart in the face of the truly difficult issues.
When Seeking ‘Balance’ Spirals into Pain
We were talking about settling down, and the question of who was paying for the house naturally came into the picture. I wanted us to split the expenses proportional to our income; she wanted me to shoulder the entire cost. This was the meal payment quarrel all over again, on a larger magnitude.
Almost immediately, the same disagreements erupted with greater fury. We argued for weeks, with frustration and mounting anger.
I was adamant about following the principle of fairness, of staying true to the idea of gender equality in treatment and contributions.
I was taken aback by her outdated concept that males should be the leader of the household. She wanted to be assured that I could provide for the family and felt insecure about her economic future because of her hip condition which might render her wheelchair-bound in a few decades. Above all, she sincerely believed that relationships shouldn’t be about transactions. The house of cards was coming apart.
In a moment of darkness, after what felt like our umpteenth call that ended in logical logjams and emotional breakdowns, I seriously wondered if I had made a wrong choice of partner.
Uncovering The Author of My Pain
What hurt me the most was how this recent row contrasted with the deep sense of connection and resonance we shared in every other aspect of our relationship. How could such an otherwise beautiful and stable relationship crumble so quickly just because of a crude matter of dollars and cents?
Our shared vision of a future family, the beautiful child we dreamed about, the cosy home we talked about all felt like naive lies we told ourselves.
Tall, black walls of emotional anguish enveloped me. Our house of cards was being demolished.
She called again, I answered.
“I had been thinking. If we can’t agree on such a fundamental belief, then perhaps, we might not be meant for each other,” I said quietly. She paused. In that heavy pause, the whole world ground to a standstill.
“Why would you…why would you say that?”, she managed a feeble reply, in between muffled sobs.
Right there and then, it struck me how much pain I was causing myself and her. It struck me that the way out of this impasse was not more incisive logic. It struck me that perhaps, just perhaps, I had dead-ended in a maze of my creation.
“Actually, you know what,”, I sighed a breath of relief, “I’ll pay for the house.”
The Givers, The Takers, and The Matchers
When I came across Adam Grant’s work about giving, it gave voice to my growing realization of how my metaphors for relationships had stretched beyond its limits.
According to Grant, there are 3 broad types of people, namely givers, takers and matchers. Givers derive immense joy from giving to others, takers burn bridges by asking for favours and not giving back, and matchers always seek to balance every favour and thing. If it is not already obvious, I was a true blue matcher.
Though matchers may seem the most pragmatic in this dog-eat-dog world, it is the givers who experience the most unbridled joy in their relationships.
Rethinking Balance and Seeing Artwork in Relationships
If anything, my most intimate relationships have taught me that this metaphor of balance between 2 people hinders deeper connection. This idea of balance creates a misconstrued duality between the self and others.
Perhaps a more enriching metaphor is that of a collaborative artwork, where every single brushstroke, regardless of who it came from, adds to the beauty of the infinite, ever-deepening whole. Give selflessly without any expectation of reward, and ironically, you will be rewarded with the most breathtaking and meaningful masterpiece.
If you are wondering, these days I generally pay for meals and she foots the other bills. This is not so much a calculated arrangement as an organic evolution in how we express our contributions to this piece of art we call our relationship.
We also don’t keep score anymore, but it does seem that somehow, we end up shelling out equal amounts at the end of the day. Maybe, just maybe, the 2 cards don’t need the straining attention of this recovering matcher to balance after all.
Review how you view and treat your relationships. Are you a giver, taker or matcher?
Evaluate if your relationships are where you want them to be. Are they a source of joy and beauty? If not, what are the underlying reasons?
In your most important relationships, think of 3 ways in which you can give selflessly, solely for the joy of the other party. Act on them as soon as you can.
TLDR: Set your boundaries, learn how to self regulate, and listen with openness
Does family = sacrifice?
Being born in a typical Asian family, I have always been expected to excel in everything that I do. Honestly, as long as what my parents expect of me is reasonable, I do not really mind that. I know that they have done so much for me and doing well in life is just one way I can repay them. Besides, having them push me forward will help me grow as a person.
The problem is what happens if what they expect of me is way too demanding and I fail to achieve those goals that they have set for me. They will be so upset and disappointed in me. Being a generally filial daughter, I do not want that to happen. I love them and I want them to be happy.
However, the continuous chasing after those ambitions can sometimes be suffocating, that it jeopardises my wellbeing. The questions then, does familial love really have to be sacrificial? Can we not find a middle ground where we both can be happy?
The answer is of course we can. I have been to two extremes from rebelling against their words to following everything that they want. As you might have guessed, both methods did not work. I did not feel happy doing them. The Buddha taught the Middle Way and we can use the concept to balance parental expectations and what we want in life.
Tips for juggling with parental expectations:
(disclaimer: these are what work for me. If you find that any of the tips below do not apply to you, you may choose to ignore it.)
1. Build a relationship with your parents that is based on open communication
Communication is key in any relationship. If you want to build a harmonious relationship with them, make sure you spend time with them. Having time together allows you to understand one another on a deeper level which makes communication easier. In that way, you know what kind of attitude and tone to adopt when discussing your concerns with them.
For example, if your parents expect you to take an engineering course in the university, but you know that your passion is not that and you will dread your decision if you simply follow what they want you to do, then, talk to them in a way that you both can reach a conclusion.
While you acknowledge their concerns (e.g. stable career), you explain to them why engineering is not suitable for you and why choosing another course of your choice will be better in a long run (e.g fulfilling career). I am sure that if you talk to them logically with realistic reasoning, they will eventually understand you.
Also, when explaining our concerns, we can practise the five factors of right speech taught by the Buddha (AN 5.198). The five factors are that a statement must be spoken at the right time, spoken in truth, spoken gently, spoken beneficially, and out of goodwill.
It is also important to understand that communication is a two-way process. Just like you, your parents also want their opinions to be heard. A lot of conflicts arise not because we think that we are right and the other person is wrong, or vice versa, but because we feel that we do not get the respect that we deserve. Hence, it is important to practise effective listening if we want communication to occur smoothly.
2. Set your boundaries
It is important to understand that you are not an extension of your parents’ ambition.
As much as you want to pay back your parents’ kindness, you need to understand that you are not perfect.
There are times when you fail and that is alright. In fact, it is great that you experience failure. In that way, you know where you are lacking and where you can improve on. You do not need to feel guilty for not achieving something. Be kind to yourself and thank yourself for doing the best you can.
Also, instead of always asking what your parents want you to do, start asking what you really want to do. Because you are the pilot of your own life, not your parents. There is a difference between repaying your parents and living all your life for your parents. Understanding that, you will not be stuck with the oppressive feeling of guilt for not living up to your parents’ expectations.
3. RELAX (breathe in, breathe out, repeat)
I know that it is not easy and extremely unnatural to be relaxed when you are expected to be the best all the time, outdoing everyone else. However, being tense will only result in you underperforming because instead of focusing on what you need to do, you pay attention to your negative emotions. Then, you feel guilty for being negative which makes you even more negative and this vicious cycle continues.
The thing is, my dear friends, when you are relaxed, you can face problems with a clearer state of mind. With a clear state of mind, you can better understand your parents and why they expect certain things from you. When you are calmer, you can also perform to your fullest potential, thereby achieving your goals and meeting your parents’ expectations.
A few ways to relax are:
a. Practising mindfulness through meditation.
There are many benefits of meditation including feeling less stressed as your stress hormone, cortisol, decreases. When you are not as stressed and anxious, the condition becomes more conducive for you to relax. One mobile app that I use to keep my meditation practice in check is insight timer. There are many guided meditations if you are new to meditation 🙂 You may consider using it too!
b. Changing your perspective.
Rather than expecting tasks to be accomplished to see tasks as adventures to experience. Inducing some form of fun can also help you to calm down.
Jotting down your emotions in a form of journal, music, or poetry. Externalisation of your emotion can uplift your mood and alleviate your emotional burden.
In conclusion, I believe that when parents expect something from us, it is usually out of goodwill. It is just that when they fail to see things from our perspectives, their expectations become overwhelmingly unrealistic and difficult to achieve.
Know that you are not alone in this and a lot of us experience the same thing. I hope that this short sharing can be of some help to you and I hope that you can better juggle with your parents’ and your own expectations. Jia you!
Find a routine that increases your mindfulness and centres you
Practise holding multiple perspectives, you do not have all the right answers
TLDR: Learning to see life in death requires courage. It is a great reminder to live life well and see joy even in the downs of life
We all know that our loved ones and ourselves will pass away someday. For the majority of us, however, this isn’t something we normally bring to mind – that is until circumstances make this a reality in our lives.
For me, this reality came in late-2017 when my close uncle (Tiuo Tiuo) passed away from Leukemia. Tiuo Tiuo was almost like a 2nd dad to me, and he was by my side through my various life milestones all the way until university. From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt many life lessons – and the lessons continued even until his last days and beyond.
“There will come a year when we will have 1 less person (at Chinese New Year) compared to the previous year. It will be really sad and the memories of that person and his presence will certainly be missed. I also felt sad looking at Ah Ma’s picture on the wall. It is the first time I see a familiar face of someone on a wall like that…”
29-01-2017 (Chinese New Year)
Tiuo Tiuo was someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life! One of his greatest pleasures was to pluck in his earphones and immerse himself in the music on his handphone. However, he was never good with technology and often required help loading up or accessing his music. The job to troubleshoot his phone when it malfunctioned often fell to me – and honestly, it wasn’t something I enjoyed all the time (especially after a long day at school)!
“So Tiuo Tiuo’s leg has been troubling him these past 2 months, but more acutely these past 2 weeks. Old age and sickness indeed.”
Looking back, however, memories of these small acts of service give me the greatest joy. There is little regret in my heart, knowing that I overcame my laziness to help bring minor conveniences and joy to Tiuo Tiuo. Since then, I made it a personal principle never to turn down requests from my loved ones as far as possible – we never know when that might be the last time we can help.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that being of service is a blessing.
“I brought Tiuo Tiuo to A&E for his full body check up… Was informed that he was diagnosed with Leukemia, which is essentially cancer… It is hard looking at Tiuo Tiuo suffering – not just his physical pain, but his mental expectations that this would be a short one.”
Aside from listening to music, Tiuo Tiuo also loved to catch up on the latest news around the world! One of the common interests that we shared was to follow the latest English Premier League football highlights. As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, however, these joys became harder to attain as his world turned more inwards.
“Tiuo Tiuo started his first chemo today… There is a chance Tiuo Tiuo will face many complications for his health and get more sick; or he might be on this long and gradual road to recovery and this state will hence linger for a few years. It is so uncertain.”
Being by Tiuo Tiuo’s side as he journeyed through his last days, I saw that pleasures in life are not evenly distributed throughout. Many of the more enjoyable and sensually delightful experiences are often front-loaded in our youth and early adulthood. The less pleasant parts of ageing, sickness, the dulling of our senses, and the gradual losing of things we hold dear – these come slowly, but inevitably.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that conditions go their natural way.
How We Live
“Tiuo Tiuo has been admitted to the ICU and intubated and unable to speak, and the prognosis isn’t good… But what’s for sure is that he is suffering much now, and I don’t know how to ease his suffering.”
As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, he could not enjoy the things he used to enjoy. Instead, he sought a simpler solace from the companionship provided by our entire extended family who banded together to support him. Tiuo Tiuo lived his life in service of others. Through the decades, his humble 4-room flat played host to many of my Malaysian cousins working in Singapore who required accommodation.
As one of the respected elders in the family, he always rejoiced in our successes, and was quietly supportive in our times of struggles – even financially at times. As Tiuo Tiuo gradually grew weaker, he rested at peace with memories of a life well-lived and in the companionship of family.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that how we live, is how we pass.
“Thursday, the doctor said the falling BP and oxygen levels were signs that Tiuo Tiuo was passing away soon … I stood outside the glass door for an extended period sending metta (loving-kindness). That was the last time I saw Tiuo Tiuo alive… I went in and ma ma and mum were reassuring him that it is ok to pass; the rest were kneeling down, sis was crying badly. I did not cry. Sent metta to Tiuo and wished for him to be well and happy.”
It has been almost 3 years since Tiuo Tiuo passed away. With time, the deep feelings of loss and sadness have given way to a more subtle appreciation of the values he represented. As I pay respects to Tiuo Tiuo at his altar daily, the lessons he taught also continue to inspire me to live each day fruitfully in service of others.
While Tiuo Tiuo may no longer be around, in many ways, he lives through the lives of many around him whom he had touched. Our loved ones and ourselves will indeed pass away someday, and we do not need to wait for this to be a reality before we learn the lessons that death and dying presents.
By realising our mortality, may we learn to be less intoxicated with youth, health and life. By learning the preciousness of our human life, may we allow mindfulness and wisdom to guide us on the path towards truer and more lasting forms of happiness.
Learn to see the bright sparks in the bleakest of time, as every moment is an opportunity to find sparks
Knowing that separation is inevitable, fruitfully serve those around you
Resources to help in death (and life) contemplation: