Advice for the Advicelorn

I was reading John Cheese’s latest column, “5 Pieces of Advice Every Adult Wishes They Got as a Teenager,” and it got me thinking about the subject of advice more generally. I usually tell people I’m against advice, but manifestly that isn’t true: I give it and even, very very occasionally and when I have no other choice, take it. But I do think the most common kind of advice is irrelevant advice.

Advice can be irrelevant for a lot of reasons. It can answer a question you have no interest in asking. It can get the location of your problem wrong, like when people assume that you’re a whiny little light bulb who just doesn’t want to change.

A lot of irrelevant advice fails because it confuses the means with the end. Here the advice-giver insists that you need to do things the way that worked for them, or the way they’ve heard about, or the way that sounds like it should work, and if you don’t do it that way you are DOOOMED. With three o’s. So you get well-meaning straight Catholics proposing Courage as the universal, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of actual existing gay/same-sex attracted Catholics, when there are a lot of problems with Courage and even at its best it isn’t for everyone. They’re confusing the goal–lead a faithful life, and therefore a life striving to be chaste–with one possible means of approaching that goal.

And I realized that I do this too! The big thing is that I tend to talk as if sublimating eros (expressing it in nonsexualized forms of love and beauty such as friendship, prayer, service, and artistic creation) and living out one’s vocation are basically the same thing, since for me, sublimation actually is a relatively big part of how I discerned and live some of my vocations. But a) even for someone like me, who is unusually attuned to sublimation and does it more or less by instinct, there’s a lot more going on in my vocations than just that, and b) when I talk this way, what I say becomes irrelevant for anyone who finds sublimation baffling or impossible. The major goals here are actually distinct: (1) discerning and living out your vocation, and (2) finding a way to make your eros pleasing to God. Sublimation is one way to make same-sex desire pleasing; sacrifice is another, and although it appears more difficult, for many people it may actually be the more intuitive and attainable path.

In general, better advice is advice with more possible pathways, and a stronger sense of the difference between the destination and the path.

About Eve Tushnet

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