My five-year-old (almost 6!) has this little routine when she’s picking out her clothes. First, she sorts through drawers and closets and pulls out the prettiest items she can find. It doesn’t matter at all if these items go together as long as each one is flowery, pink, sparkly, ruffly, colorful, and/or fancy. Some days (many days) when I haven’t put all the laundry away, she is left with one very beautiful (if uncoordinated) outfit. On the other days, the ones in which there are choices to be made, she calls in backup.
When I arrive on the scene, she holds up two shirts and asks, “Which one do you think I should wear?”
I discreetly eye the pants that are going to go with them and try to pick the shirt that will clash the least. “That one,” I point.
“I think I’d rather wear the other one,” she says, serenely doing the exact opposite of what I advised.
Of all the many things humans ask for but don’t really want (patience, anyone?) advice tops the list.
I mean, we feel overwhelmed by life sometimes. We face difficult choices or worse, we don’t see any choices at all. We feel stuck. We feel worried. We feel afraid. It’s reassuring at those times to know that we aren’t alone. It feels wise to ask for good counsel in tough times. It IS wise. But can we be honest? Under all our worry/fear/uncertainty/confusion/paralysis there is almost always something we WANT to do. Sometimes our indecision comes because we can’t quite lay our finger on it. Sometimes it comes because we don’t want to admit, because we know it’s the wrong thing to want. Sometimes it comes because we carry unnecessary guilt about what we want. Sometimes we just worry what others will think about what we want. But under there somewhere, we already have a course in mind. And nine times out of ten, no matter what advice we may receive, we’re going to follow that course.
My daughter knows which shirt she wants to wear. She just sometimes enjoys the added thrill of casting off her mother’s vision and being her own person.
So why do we ever bother giving advice to anyone? I’m not a huge fan of being ignored. Are you? What’s even the point of it all? When my little girl asks me which shirt to wear, all I want to do is say, “Whichever. Just do what you want. You will anyway.” But is that missing the point somehow?
This weekend, I finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. If you haven’t read it, it’s a compilation of a bunch of Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar columns. (You saw Wild? You read it, maybe? Same woman.) This isn’t a book review really, and my point isn’t to get into whether or not I agree with all of the advice in the book. (For the record, I don’t. We have some world view differences. But I loved the book anyway. See below.)
I really enjoyed the book. Her writing is lovely. Her life is real. She has a way of getting at the heart of what her readers are really asking.
Her column is wildly popular. People write her for advice about all sorts of things. Hundreds of them. Writing to a total stranger. What’s the deal with that?
Here’s the deal. To almost every letter, Sugar responds by telling a story. Usually, it’s a story about her own life. Sometimes about someone she knows personally. The stories aren’t always about times she was in the exact same situation (though she’s been through enough that they often are), but they are always about times she felt the same as the letter writer is feeling. Any direct advice she gives springs out of these stories.
And there it is. Not just the key to giving advice, but the reason why we bother giving advice at all.
Because advice isn’t about telling people what to do. It’s about connecting with them. It’s about them feeling less alone as they decide for themselves what to do.
It all comes back to stories. People who will never listen to instructions will listen to your stories. Not weird fables you made up for the purpose of instruction, but your stories. I’ve mentioned this before with regards to my kids. If you want people to listen, just tell them a story.
If you have no stories, just shut your mouth. Until you’ve lived enough life to have stories, you’re better off being a supportive listener. Cry with people. Hug them. Ask them questions. But don’t presume to know. If you have no stories, you aren’t feeling what they feel.
If you do have stories, don’t keep them to yourself, no matter how small, no matter how awful. Your story is exactly what the people around you need. To feel connected. To feel understood. To feel less alone.
The next time my daughter asks me to help with a wardrobe decision, I’m all ready for her. It wont’ matter what the options are. I actually love that she has her own sense of style and doesn’t worry a bit about the opinions of others. I love that beauty is paramount in her world. So I have a story all picked out.
When I was 6, my favorite thing to wear was an old velour v-neck. It was fuzzy and royal blue. It had a butterfly imprinted over my heart, and I was pretty sure it was velvet. I wore it as often as I could. I remember a day when my mom wanted to take my picture out by the rose bush in the back yard. It had just bloomed, and my beauty-loving mother saw a chance for a great photo. I don’t know what she wanted me to wear, but it wasn’t the blue velour shirt. I’m sure her choice was much prettier. But I wanted to wear that shirt. I just knew I would look exactly like a princess in my velvet garment surrounded by flowers.
I still have the picture of me at 6, a scrawny red-head in a blue velour v-neck sitting by a rose bush with a self-satisfied smirk.
It’s one of my favorites.