“Don’t tell me what to do. I know what to do. I don’t need to feel any worse about my abilities than I already do,” she said, with an honesty a person welcomes until it speaks up.
I defended myself, “I was just making conversation,” but this was the third time my friend had rebuked me for offering advice. I didn’t know what else to say except, “all right” and feel how the friendship had waned.
I felt naked as I scrolled through Facebook, suddenly aware of how I gave advice, wanting desperately to be helpful. One woman asked for prayers for her anxiety over a medical issue. I said I would pray but maybe journaling her fears would help. Another wrote about a sleepless night. I suggested therapy. Both women pressed “like” and did not unfriend me.
I was grateful for their grace. But I saw my giving advice for what it was—about my desire to be useful, to help, to be seen as a good, wise woman. I wanted to offer the tools that have helped me, the insights that helped me through years of grief and anger.
Sometimes I see friends going through losses I’ve known—losing parents, siblings—and I wish I could say, “Here, here is how I walked through my grief,” but they are not interested. Those experiences feel like a pile of gold I’m hoarding. But those experiences aren’t a waste because they’ve refined me. They’ve been beautiful, terrifying paths perhaps unique to me, not useful for others who have their own beautiful, terrifying paths to walk.
The rest of that week it seemed like famous people were speaking right at me about how advice giving wasn’t such a good idea. I felt like I had spiritual body odor and writers I looked up to were politely offering deodorant.
Richard Rohr had been doing a series on the Enneagram, which is an ancient version of a personality test that reveals people’s strengths and weaknesses. There are nine personality types whose gifts and weaknesses mirror each other. Three are based in the head, three in the heart and three in the body. Rohr repeatedly stated that it takes a work of grace to move us out of our ego into our true selves.
He says, “For any type, it usually takes the major humiliation of seeing our root sin for what it is.” He went on to talk about the day he realized he’d chosen his order, his vows, mostly because he wanted to look good. (https://cac.org/type-one-need-perfect-2016-04-27/)
My romp through Facebook those few days, my friend’s rebuke, awakened me to how un-useful advice can be. My efforts to be helpful came off as slaps. This work of grace was as bracing as walking into below zero weather without shoes.
The next day Rohr talked about Twos and the need to be needed. Yes, that’s me and my helpfulness. Even in my prayers I am desperate to show I care about others, throwing up single line prayers that God would help, comfort, or sustain assorted people who come across my Facebook feed. Thanksgiving for being alive, standing on this ground, seeing the sun rise and set, petting my horses and dog and cat, gets edged out by those prayers because I want to be good.
Rohr states, “’Others must and will love me!’” they demand, instead of resting in the love that they already are. They are driven to love, help, and serve others, without realizing that their motivation is the need for others to love them.”
“When a TWO can finally cry tears of self-knowledge, redemption (healing) is near. At such moments, TWOs realize that they have perhaps damaged and injured other people while supposedly ‘wanting the best for them.’ This is deeply humiliating.” (https://cac.org/type-two-need-needed-2016-04-28/)
Well, I didn’t cry for days but when my Facebook feed started with Rohr’s meditations and continued with Parker Palmer gently saying that the best thing we can offer someone who is hurting is our presence, our quiet listening presence, I took a deep breath, gulped hard, and pulled my blanket up to my chin.
Palmer says, “Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Palmer continues with his advice about advice. “Many of us ‘helper’ types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our ‘fix,’ then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to ‘save’ the other person.” (http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-the-gift-of-presence-the-perils-of-advice/8628) Yup, he’s nailed the impulses behind my advice giving.
And then Elizabeth Gilbert piled on by saying, “It’s taken me years to learn how to back off from my passionate and burning desire to be absolutely certain about how other people should be living their lives. (Amazing, isn’t it, how certain we can be about other people’s lives, when our own lives are often so confusing and blurry and jittery?)
“Same goes for my instinct to offer advice to people who have not asked me for advice (I used to think they just FORGOT to ask me for advice, and if I gave them advice it would REMIND them of what a good idea it would be if they came to me for advice….but no, it seems that when people don’t ask for my advice they actually seriously don’t freaking want it! Incredible. What world of strange wonders is this?) I say it all the time to myself now: ‘If you love somebody, Liz, just love them. And then stay out of it.”(https://www.facebook.com/GilbertLiz/posts/1017463331669115:0)
In fact I felt so guilty, so ashamed, that when a friend wanted to have lunch I thought for sure she was going to scold me for the advice I’d offered to a mutual friend, but she didn’t. She simply ordered the same meal I ordered—soup and bread. Then we talked about our lives. She asked for my advice and I asked for hers.