If I follow my own counsel, I discover my mistakes sooner. If I go to a mentor or take a poll of my friends and behave as they advise, and doing so turns out to be a mistake, it won’t be my mistake, and all that I am sure to learn from it is that they were wrong.
No one can know for sure what’s right for himself much less for me. If I tell you I’m off to teach peace to the Islamic State, and you tell me it’s a bad idea, how do you know it’s a bad idea? After all, I might succeed. At the very least, it could turn out that if I stayed in Oregon, I’d fall asleep while driving and run head-on into a busload of school children, killing them all. No matter how sure we are that something is a mistake, none of us can see the future. I remember a time when I ignored my sister’s advice and later regretted it, but I wouldn’t go back and do things differently because I don’t know but what the right decision might not have led to a worse outcome.
If you feel the need to give advice, it’s better to avoid anger and condescension, because anger and condescension distracts from your argument and causes me to wonder if you’re acting out of a private agenda that has nothing to do with my welfare. At the very least, if it turns out that you were right, you will have made it hard for me to come to you for support because I will anticipate you thinking, “See there, I told you so. Maybe you’ll listen to me next time.”
Sometimes, a person might do as someone else advises because it seems to make sense, but other times, the reason might simply be a lack of self-confidence. Since no one can build self-confidence by ignoring his own best thinking in favor of the best thinking of someone else, advice-givers aren’t necessarily being helpful even when they’re right.
I think it’s nearly always better to ask questions than to provide answers. By asking questions, you’re encouraging me to find my own truth and my own path. By providing answers, you’re offering that which you think your truth and your path would be if you were me, only you’re not me. You’re a million miles from being me.
I have observed that advice is often obvious, left-brain, superficial, and insulting. For instance, if I say that I’m unable to stop grieving the death of my father, and someone says, “You just need to learn to accept that which you can’t change,” he’s implying that I’m such a moron that I never would have thought of this on my own. He’s also implying that he is my superior in that his own life is ruled by logic rather than by emotional need and desire, although I’ve never observed this to be the case.
If I have a problem, I will have spent many hours pondering solutions that the advice giver thinks of off the top of her head. I invariably know more about why I have the problem and what needs to be done done about it than those who would advise me.
Giving advice to me is hardly more useful than giving advice to a cat because I’ve spent my adult life ignoring what other people thought was perfectly good sense. I’ll give three examples. When I grew a beard during the summer of 1976, the principal at the school where I was teaching assumed I did it for the bicentennial and ordered me to shave before school started. I refused despite growing threats from the administration and the combined wisdom of everyone I knew. Years later, I joined the ACLU and American Atheists, despite the fact that all of my Mississippi friends and neighbors thought that these organizations represented everything that was wrong with America. Every time I’m called to jury duty (eight times in three states), I refuse to take the juror’s oath because it contains the word God. Nearly everyone I ever talked to about this said that I was making a big deal out of nothing.
What might look like a mistake to an onlooker might conform to a guiding vision that is invisible to him and, perhaps, only vaguely known to myself. I am not always able to defend my path to the satisfaction of my challengers, but I don’t take this to mean that I’m in error. I’m more likely to conclude that my would-be advisers are acting out of ignorance, whether of the facts of the matter or of my needs and values.
A decision isn’t necessarily wrong because it isn’t as good as an alternative decision or because it fails to succeed; rather it’s wrong when it originates out of base motives.
I think it might be possible that most people don’t share as deeply as I do on their blogs because when you share deeply, many people assume you’re weak, vulnerable, and looking for advice. If I were weak and vulnerable, I wouldn’t have the guts to share as I do, and while I’m willing to consider advice, I seldom take it.
One good thing I can say about advice is that those who give it are at least paying attention. Whether they are paying attention deeply is another matter, but they are paying attention, and I think that in nearly every case, they really do want the best for me.