On Giving Advice

I started this article before the tsunami. One thing my son noticed, while watching the news of the horrible events that have befallen this vulnerable land, was how contained these poor people were, in the face of what seems an unthinkable tragedy. I now dedicate this post to the Japanese. May we learn from their composure and grace.

The comedian Joan Rivers used to be famous for her tag-line, Can we talk? Well I’ve got one, too: Can we listen?

Can we sometimes simply share with one another? Can we reside in that state of neutrality, where we are completely without the compulsion to advise and judge, suggest and recommend, as a perfunctory response to any confidence shared or any word spoken?

Now, I’m not suggesting advice doesn’t have its place. It is with immeasurable gratitude that I think upon the dear ones in my life that I can go to when in need of reassurance or encouragement, or simply to bear out my own feeling on a matter.

What I have in mind is casual conversations between individuals, when unrequested, almost mechanical consultation, routine advice-giving, takes the place of simply sharing.

For example, in these snippets from actual conversations:

Tom: I’ve been sort of melancholic lately.
Anna: Try walking on the beach.

Mary: Dan’s been getting on my nerves lately.
Josie: You need to be more patient with him.

Lori: I just don’t enjoy traveling as much as I used to.
Sam: Well, you need to be adventurous and find the beauty in it.

It was a moment of great accord that I happened upon an old book from my study room, while researching for class. It was on Japanese culture. The European writer described with great emphasis, how disinclined these equable people are toward issuing criticism or judgment of any kind. This is no less true of the changing moods of those around them, as it is of the changing seasons and all the elements of the world as a whole. In the spirit of acceptance, they take the bad with the good. All of it is part of life. As Karlfried Graf Durckheim says of the Japanese:

The Japanese are not fond of making moral judgments, except in rare instances. But their characteristic attitude is to affirm life as it is, to accept it and give it its due in its uniqueness, instead of trying to compose it into rational and ethical systems.

He goes on:

For the Japanese, pointless grumbling is considered weak, and narrow-minded judgment despicable.

We can learn from their phlegmatic disposition. We can simply be with what is. Upon reflection, my feeling is that we don’t believe in the power of simply being, of simply paying attention. We don’t believe that merely listening is good enough. We feel we have to validate our presence, make ourselves worthy, by helping or fixing.

The other more profound phenomenon at work is largely cultural. We have an expression: It’s all good. We like to say it, but we don’t actually believe it. It is a slightly different point than the one made above. Here, our tendency to fix is a national compulsion, a cultural tic. It’s a western thing–we are set to do, to make, to fix and to solve, not merely in order to validate our presence, but because we don’t truly believe, in our heart of hearts, that everything will be fine. That is to say, we don’t truly believe that the natural ebb and flow of everything–our moods, our weather, our happiness–is normal and fine.

The result is an unconscious rush of recommendations, well-meaning guidance and endless instructions, even in the context of a casual conversation, where the simple act of sharing is, alone, delightful, welcome nourishment. It may be an effortless, but sincere gesture of compassion–a look that says I feel that way, too, sometimes. A gesture that communicates our shared human experience is like balm on a wounded soul.

I have a feeling this commentary might irritate people. But again, I’m not referring at all to those instances where council from a trustworthy friend is sought, nor to any such situation where we actively seek the guidance and the wisdom of others. And thank goodness we can. It is, rather, a casual observation of the freely dispersed, the automatic and impulsive. That which is given as if by reflex, without limit or restraint. I assert, at the risk of pissing people off, that it’s a subtle act of imposing, of pushing our ideas of what’s right on others. It is, in short, the imposition of ego.

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