I’m a compulsive giver of advice. Despite my demonstrable lack of ability to run my own life like a person, I appear to believe that I could do well running yours. Now and then my friends have to basically say, “That’s great and all, stop helping.” I have the stereotypical guy thing where the wife just wants to be heard and commiserated with, and the husband insists on trying to solve the problem.
Because of this, which I’m trying to present cutely but which can really become a character defect when I don’t rein myself in, I spend a lot of time thinking about how good advice goes bad. This is advice where the giver is already trying to do all the basic work of listening and responding humbly rather than projecting one’s own needs, beliefs, or experiences. One of the most common problems is that two people can hear the same advice in opposite ways–and both of those ways can be “right,” really, both getting at an important theological or moral truth.
So for example, you’re having a problem. Let’s say it’s compulsive stealing of elephants, because what it actually is doesn’t matter, and let’s say you get advice from two different Christian friends. One of them suggests a list of things you can try, like changing your route home from work so you don’t pass the zoo, or praying each morning to St. Wilberforce Tusked-to-Death, the patron saint of respecting our elephantine friends. The other one emphasizes God’s mercy and total forgiveness of your elephant theft, and reminds you that we only act well through God’s grace, not through strenuous rule-following or beating ourselves up about stuff.
People who know me know that I tend way too far toward the first approach, but that’s not important right now. The thing is, both of your friends are right, but both kinds of advice can be taken the wrong way really badly. The first kind of advice can come across as–or be taken as, since this is an interaction of speaker and listener in which both play an active role–scolding. It’s a list of tasks; nobody likes to confess a sin that’s making him miserable and get homework in return. It can also come across as viewing the moral life as a problem of technique: Just do these things and you will conquer sin. Personally, by yourself. This is an unbearable burden. It places us in the role of Jesus, as if we are healed by our own stripes and not by His.
On the other hand, this is one kind of advice I personally have needed many times, and received many times. Sometimes small technical changes really help. There’s an acronym in AA (because isn’t there always), HALT–Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. It basically means, When you feel like you would kill for a drink, ask yourself if you’re any of these four things. If you are, address your hunger/anger/loneliness/exhaustion first. Once you’ve eaten and rested and called a friend, etc, ask yourself if you still want a drink that badly. Paying attention to the needs of the body, changing your morning routine, taking up specific prayer practices designed to meet your specific needs, keeping a *~*journal*~* like the melodramatic teenager we all are at heart–all of that is stuff I’ve started to do and it’s helped immensely. If nobody told me about those things I would be a lot worse off than I am now. I mean, you laugh at, “You should pray in the bathroom“, but there’s a reason people say it.
Meanwhile the other kind of advice can be incredibly reassuring. I’ve relied on that kind a lot too. The metaphors of surrender and powerlessness which animate a lot of AA spirituality really resonate for me; one of the most helpful things my first spiritual director said to me was to remember that I was being carried by Christ, not relying on my own strength.And yet this kind of advice, too, can come across really badly–it can provoke a sense of fatalism and even despair when it’s heard by people who feel really distant from God and not carried or supported or changed by Him in some area of their lives. There’s a subset of AA personal narratives which describe basically a huge spiritual epiphany, after which the desire to drink was entirely removed; if your story doesn’t fit that it can be really discouraging to read about it, knowing that this hasn’t happened for you. It can feel like being told that there’s nothing you can do if you’re not one of the chosen ones. You’re just sort of helplessly lying there, passively waiting for something in your life to change.
Figuring out what another person might need to hear is incredibly hard, even (especially??) if you know the person very well and care about her very much. Even the third option, not offering advice at all, can lead to hurt feelings or a sense of abandonment: I was suffering so much and you guys didn’t even seem to notice!
At times it can be easier to advise strangers well, I think largely because strangers expect less insight and empathy. So if you empathize and listen and care, it’s fairly likely that the stranger will feel surprised and heartened by what you get right and will have the self-confidence to dismiss what you get wrong.
I don’t actually have any meta-advice here. Obviously almost everyone needs to listen more and advise less, and this is especially true for me; I need to be less pushy and less impressed with my own tiny insights. There’s no “technique” for giving good advice–suggestions like telling your own story can be just as pushy or just as easily-misheard as plain old “do this, not that,” in my experience. I’m not writing this post to try to excuse the genuinely overbearing, well-meaning but assumption-filled advice I’ve given over the years. I do hope that by describing the nature and ubiquity of the problem I can maybe make it easier for us to be gentle with one another, especially when we receive inappropriate advice. In Ye Olde Gaye Catholicke Whattenotte Boke, about which more soon!, I talk about some advice I’ve been given over the years by priests (about both my sexual orientation and my drinking problem), which I thought was really misguided. But I hope I come across as grateful for what the priests were trying to do. Sometimes even bad advice can be taken well, in the sense that you can recognize it as a sign of the other person’s care for you; this is even true of the refusal to give advice, which can be seen as a sign of humility and respect for your autonomy (even when you don’t necessarily want autonomy).
One last shot of AA wisdom, the strongest: I really love their saying, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” This too can be misheard! What if I don’t know what I need? What if I make a mistake about what I need? But the saying isn’t meant to solve your problem, only to point it out: to make obvious the ongoing need for prudence, and for forgiveness–of yourself and of others–when imprudence happens. (I’m going to try to make “Imprudence happened” the new “Mistakes were made.”) The saying is meant to help you focus simultaneously on your own real needs and insufficiencies–the places where pursuing personal desire is not working for you–and also on the individuality of those needs. Not all of your uniqueness needs to be terminal.
[ETA the usual disclaimer: All of the examples I give of how advice/unadvice works are drawn from more than one life, and all of them are also things I’ve experienced myself as recipient, not just compulsive giver, so none of these examples are about any one person. Even the thing about the elephants–but seriously, you guys, don’t steal snakes.]