“I know it’s a kick in the pants to hear that the problem is you, but it’s also fucking fantastic. You are, after all, the only person you can change.” – Cheryl Strayed
A paradox about myself is that I detest receiving unsolicited advice, but I LOVE reading advice columns.
I find that, 90% of the time, people who give advice are doing it more for their benefit than for the sake of their listener.** After all, it’s fun to give advice. It’s satisfying to help people, it’s enjoyable to tell our stories, and it’s gratifying to be able to share the wisdom and knowledge that we’ve gained throughout the years with a young, impressionable mind. The situations we experience in life are often messy and uncomfortable, but when reflecting back on them with the perspective that only time can give, we can clean them up and make sense of them. How thrilling it is to have this perspective and be able to share it with others! Baz Luhrman’s spoken word song “Everyone’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” aptly sums up my understanding of the mindset of advice-givers: “Advice is a form of nostalgia; dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
I understand the impulse to give advice, but that doesn’t mean that I relish the experience of receiving said advice, unless I particularly requested it. This is why it’s so odd that advice columns are the first ones I turn to in magazines. Whether the topic is etiquette, relationships, or organizing, I devour advice columns. I both love the anonymous questions and the thoughtful responses. I am eager to get a sense of what other people struggle with, and I derive much satisfaction from figuring out how I can integrate the advice bestowed upon letter-writers into my own life.
My affinity for advice columns made me very, very excited to pick up Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. The book is a collection of the once-anonymous advice columnist Dear Sugar’s letters to countless readers and implorers, originally published on The Rumpus. I laughed and cried my way through this tender, witty, honest, humble and hopeful mine of letters, and now I’m recommending it to every other person I meet.
One of the things I liked best about Dear Sugar is Strayed’s marvelous capacity to both lovingly accept the imperfections of the people writing to her and to confidently expect more from them. We have the capacity to choose how we act in any given situation, Strayed extols again and again, and the choices we make determine our destiny. Life is hard and it’s understandable that sometimes we make shitty decisions and hurt the people we love (and don’t love). Sometimes we royally mess up. But messing up and making mistakes doesn’t destine us for failure, and we all have the power to become better people, one choice at a time.
“We do not have the right to feel helpless…we must help ourselves…After destiny has delivered what it delivers, we are responsible for our lives.” – Cheryl Strayed
** For the record, I just made that 90% figure up. I would wager that most advice-givers believe they are offering it for the sake of their listener, but I would also wager that the act of giving advice is more pleasurable than the act of receiving…at least for me; although, also for the record, I do frequently solicit advice from a few trusted individuals, including my husband, my parents, close friends, and a beloved mentors, but receiving advice when having asked for it is an entirely different experience than being harangued with it passively.