On advice

I’m a big believer in getting and taking advice from people I respect. If I’m not sure about something, I’m going to ask other people what they think. I even have my go-to list of people I consult before making any major decisions–to include parents, siblings, roommates, and dear friends.

So when it came to changing jobs last summer, I called my dad, my mom, my friends, I chatted it over with roommates, I even talked to my boss about it. (I was blessed to have a boss who wanted what was best for me, and who strongly counseled me to seek the option that would help me grow.) It took a full week, but I’m grateful that I thought it through before making any big decisions.

For spiritual matters, I make sure to have a good spiritual director, and to meet with him as regularly as possible. It just keeps things functioning the way they should, and it keeps me on track.

I seek advice in more mundane matters, too. Should I wear this shirt with this skirt, for instance. (I’ve been saved more than one embarrassing wardrobe malfunction by my roommates. And I admit it proudly, I learned everything I know about what not to wear from my sisters.) Or I’ll ask advice on workout techniques, and whether or not one should spend the money on a gym membership. I’ve asked about car repairs, where to buy new boots, good recipes, budgeting ideas, and countless other things.

Then there are the personal matters–relationships, self-perception, moods, and the like. Some of these, of course, can be discussed in spiritual direction, but at a certain point one just has to live through them in order to see the best course of action, or the best response.

But ultimately, when it comes to taking any advice at all, you as the decider/actor have to discern which advice is good and applicable, and which can — and even should — be ignored.

At a certain point, one can devolve into requiring other people’s good opinion in order to act. Of course we want to do the right thing, and we want to be respected and liked, but if our sole motivation for getting anything done is finding out what other people think, we’ll never get anywhere. There’s another danger: we start to seek an oracle. Life is a scary, often confusing journey, and sometimes we just want to know what’s going to happen next. How often do we seek advice when what we really want is a prophecy?

Finding the balance can be really tough. Granted, some of the lines are pretty clear. For instance, as soon as advice from other people crosses the line into pressure, it ceases to function as advice. People can counsel and encourage, but once their well-meaning directives for your life devolve into wheedling, persuading, or worse, it’s time to take a step back and reassess. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I think you’re right in general, but in this particular case, I’m not going to follow your advice.” Sometimes people are just flat-out wrong.

Some distinctions are less clear, though. What to do, for instance, when people start offering advice on what you can or should change about yourself? Lately I feel I’ve been inundated with counsel on what I should do or not do to be a better person, and I’m becoming a bit addled by all of it.

Now goodness knows I’m a bundle of rough edges that need to be sanded down, and though I often hate the process, I know it’s good for me. Still, I am beginning to realize that I’ve been running around my daily life trying to squeeze and pull and stretch myself into all sorts of shapes because it’s what all sorts of other people seem to expect.

“You need to be more assertive,” says one well-meaning advice-giver.
“You need to be more approachable,” says another.
“It might be nice if you loosened up a bit,” suggests someone else.

All good advice, all taken to heart, I assure you. The casualty of all this well meant counsel, though, is my own sense of self. So-and-so thinks I’m too sweet and wishy-washy, while what’s-his-name tells me I need to tone down the sarcasm. Could it possibly be both? How confusing.

Ultimately, I have to ask myself, am I working to change these aspects of myself simply because I worry about what people think of me? Because I — the ultimate pleaser — want everyone who has an opinion about me and my life to be happy with the way I go about living it? Or am I stretching myself because I want to become perfect, to live well, and to achieve my own fulfillment and flourishing?

The same goes for giving advice. How often do I hunker down in my own perceptions and limited understanding of another person and pour forth a torrent of advice that might actually do more harm than good? We all want to be wise and to help those we love, but maybe jabbering on and on isn’t always the best way to do it. We have to recognize our own strengths in order to help others most effectively. I may be able to give decent advice on finding a job, but I’m the last person any girl should talk to about dating or what to do with her hair on a Saturday night.

At the end of the day, taking advice has to come down to this: we seek advice in order to figure out our way on our journey to becoming all that God has made us to be. No one else knows our future, any more than we do. No one else knows our innermost being. We can seek counsel and guidance, but our final recourse should always, always, always be prayer.

I will be candid: my path here lately has been darker than usual, and I’m less sure than ever about what God has in mind for my life. Sometimes the lack of direction leaves me more than a little desolate. I should add, too, that I’m deeply grateful for the counsel and advice of my friends and loved ones, and I want you to keep it coming. I just need to remind myself from time to time that there is only one Person in whom I can place all my trust. And that’s one bit of advice you can all take to the bank.

Psalm 139

LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
You sift through my travels and my rest;
with all my ways you are familiar.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
LORD, you know it all.

Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.

If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.

If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”-
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!

My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be.

How precious to me are your designs, O God;
how vast the sum of them!

Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands;
when I complete them, still you are with me.

When you would destroy the wicked, O God,
the bloodthirsty depart from me!

Your foes who conspire a plot against you
are exalted in vain.

Do I not hate, LORD, those who hate you?
Those who rise against you, do I not loathe?
With fierce hatred I hate them,
enemies I count as my own.

Probe me, God, know my heart;
try me, know my thoughts.
See if there is a wicked path in me;
lead me along an ancient path.

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4 thoughts on “On advice

  1. Is the “advice” on how to change yourself as a person generally solicited? In other words, do you find yourself looking for ways to change who you are and thus (even implicitly) invite such personal comments? If so, you may consider changing that . . . 😉

    But really: I often don’t want to know what people think of me. There are certain things about myself that, while I know they could be irksome to/incompatible with others, it’s simply not worthwhile for me to try to change them. Also, like you said, you start to lose yourself if you accept the premise that you can be all things to all men–only one Man is that.

  2. I think that I am generally sympathetic with all the sentiments heretofore shared–I always try (not easy [read as: “next to impossible”]) to only worry about what Mr. Creator Who Lives in the Attic thinks about moi, and then treat the rest as suggestions left in the comment box. They might be useful–they might not. Keep the good and toss out the bad. If it gets to be too much though, try countering with wit til the well-wisher gives up, or…

    Punch them in the face. Of course then you run the risk of receiving advice on your punching technique or that “you should punch people in the face less.”

    My unsolicited advice for you is: Punch people in the face more often.

    Then let God sort them out.

    On the other hand, if advice to “be more assertive” or “loosen up” et. al. comes from people at work, chances are you need to pay them heed fast, and welcome.

    Back to the first hand though, if it is advice of the third party variety, like, hey you, you’d feel better about so and so’s party if you did X, or you could get a date if you were more like Y, or you know people probably don’t like it when you do Z–then see my previous advice, about sorting.

    Truth is, I am not at all obsessed with what people think of me, but, there was at least a time in my formative years where after not caring or not wanting to know, I realized that it was better for my humility and my formation to know what people observed early and often. I literally changed alot of foolish habits and “personality traits” (some are sheer habit, and not immutable or ingrained) that were utter garbage, and probably embraced in the first place due to insecurity. I’m a much better Citizen of Rome for it, to be sure, and though such advice is rare to be offered to me these days (because I take the same advice that I gave you?), when it does come I do listen, even if I bristle at first. Because all our years are formative, after all, striving for saintly perfection. And falling flat on face daily. (Chronic FFOFD.) Blep.

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