I constantly catch myself being myself, and it’s generally not pretty; it often appears as I recognize that once again I have been assuming that my feeling, my opinions, my agenda is at the heart of the universe’s business for the day. So, I’m not doing very well in the humility department, although that admission is sort of humble, in a transparently self-serving way. Life’s lessons tend to come to me at full force, jamming a heaping dose of reality down my gullet just as I muster a truly impressive and thoroughly puffed up sense of my own importance. I know there are spiritual giants out there who engage the world with thoughtful attention and learn from observation; apparently, I need to be hit by a bus and dragged several blocks before I figure things out.
This admission comes as I prepare not to offer advice to a friend. The stakes aren’t all that high; this isn’t a million dollar decision. But it’s not my decision to make, and not my decision to influence. I’m a flop at carpentry, plumbing, and real estate investment; I have owned three cars that burst into flame as I drove them. Yesterday I put eggshells in the frying pan and dropped the eggs in garbage. What possible advice could I offer anyone? It’s one thing for me to live with the consequences of my judgment and quite another to watch someone else contend with my advice given too freely. And, as I think about it, I’ve ignored excellent advice for years and followed disastrous suggestions that more comfortably suited my inclinations, proving that we pretty much hear what we want to hear.
That’s my current estimation of my advice-giving capacity, but as occasions still arise in which I’m expected to offer some semblance of thoughtful reply, I did some rustling around to find examples of advice offered by people I respect. I’m not going deep here; these are ordinary words offered simply:
I have found that my wife’s response in one of the toughest moments we have shared has served me well in every challenging situation that followed. Her advice?
“Don’t make it worse.”
I’ll turn next to Fred Rogers. My eldest son has recorded each of his shows and intends to show my granddaughter nothing but every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a plan I enthusiastically endorse. His advice pretty much sets the table:
“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”
Hard to miss the point.
Apparently, Mr. Rogers is not alone. The 14th Dalai Lama puts it squarely on the table with his opinion:
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
Simple. Obvious. Not easy.
One of my children went to a wonderful school, unconventional in many ways, humane and determined to honor the gifts students brought with them. One of their abiding principles was an often stated maxim:
“When in doubt, go with gratitude.”
OK, I’ll up the stakes a bit now, expecting that some situations call for more complicated solutions, realizing that we are bound by ego, easily injured, easily shamed; we are inclined at times to wallow in self-loathing, delicious resentment, or righteous indignation. There are moments in which the soft rainbow of kindness just can’t hit the ground. The choice is almost always to pick at the festering wounds or start to heal, but in the moment, that can be a tough choice to make. Knowing something about tough choices, Maya Angelou put it simply:
“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
Everybody? All those folks walking through their day making dreadful judgments about us, our wardrobe, our hair? David Foster Wallace, who was an extremely complicated guy who wrote one of the most relentlessly complicated novels in American literature actually boiled it down fairly simply:
“You’d worry less about what people think of you if you knew how seldom they do.”
Fine. Fine. Forgive everybody, forgive myself. Don’t worry about what others think of us since they apparently don’t. Kindness, gratitude. Got it.
But how about some advice that is, you know, useful? Assuming that we’re well on the way to becoming fully self-actualized and intermittently decent persons, how about a few nuggets just to tide us over when instinct and training fail?
I turn to Kentucky poet and author Wendell Berry, a man who knows a thing or two about people such as I, people who still have copies of TV Guide from 1962, who have preserved twenty-year-old homework assignments completed by his children, who have saved registrations of cars long since junked. He’s got advice I really should take to heart:
“Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”
With that in mind, and determined to keep things simple, I had hoped to find one elegantly shaped and universally applicable summary to offer as a final apology for my decision to withhold offering advice myself. It happens that my reading for several months has pretty much been limited to speculative fiction and science fiction written by women in the last decade. I didn’t set out to cover that territory, but one novel seemed to invite the next, bringing me to the work of Mary Doria Russell, a PhD. in Biological Anthropology and author of the Sparrow series. She’s often concerned with the largest questions, particularly about the nature of God and the character of evil, but she too has a gift for expressing thoughts with simple precision:
“When it comes down to it, I don’t have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is: Read to children. Vote. And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”
That just about polishes off my store of available insights. Should anything outside of these situations come up in the next few years, I have to remind you, please, don’t ask me.