You’re Asking ME?

the doctor is inWhat  do you do when someone seeks your advice?

 I ask myself this question every time I read Dear Abby, the advice column written by Pauline Phillips, who, now in her 74th year, is one wise and earthy person.

Take the response she makes to this high schooler who writes in to ask if it’s “wrong” to be put off by the fact that her new boyfriend has just told her that two of the toes on each foot are “webbed.”

“When he sent me a photo one day to prove it, I realized they are almost entirely attached and I freaked out. I don’t know how to feel. Am I being shallow? “

“No, you are being foolish,” replies Abby and I’m betting it’s this kind of candor that keeps people reading her. Plus she offers so many pearls of wisdom: 

“Look within,” is often the gist of her advice. Also, “Examine your motives.”  Not to mention, “Seek counseling” something she will say in the same way that bold people will yell “Get a room!” when they come upon a madly making out couple.

She just makes sense, as in this response she pens to someone going on and on to ask what words s/he should use to tell her/his new psychotherapist that that person “isn’t right for me.”

“The words are, ’This isn’t working for me and I won’t be coming back,’” says Abby, adding only that the therapist probably does deserve to know why.

And then there’s the advice she gives to an angry grandmother who begins her letter by huffing,  “Whatever happened to respecting one’s elders and recognizing grandparents as head of the family?”

Apparently the woman has just come from a visit to the home of her son and his wife where she had  “many disagreements” with her daughter-in-law on how to care for “my grandchild. Instead of respecting my years of experience as a mother and appreciating my help, she chose to ignore my instructions and advice.“

Now, as a result, her son has told her she “will not be welcomed into their home again unless she apologizes for trying to undermine her parenting. I told him she should apologize to ME for not showing me respect as the grandmother! How can I make my son see that it is his wife who is wrong, and not me? “

Oh dear. I do feel for this lady, I do. Her desire is so human. I mean, who among us wouldn’t wish to be supported in the belief that we ourselves are just fine and it’s the other guy who needs to change?

Still, I have to shake my head reading her words: She’s the head of the whole family all of a sudden, just because her child now has a child? I’m a grandmother myself and my feeling is that in most instances my job is to keep pretty much mum until my advice is asked for.

I’m so glad that “Abby” is still out there doing what she does  – and I am dead sure I would never want her job. If I have learned anything in the near 60 years, I have spent as a thinking person it is this:  When people asks questions about the course of action they should take, they often already know, deep down, what that course is.

To my way of thinking, the best thing I can do is ask helpful questions and then listen to the answers, with utter, absolute attention and an open heart.

Better Than Abby

I was once giving a young man a bit of advice, something I didn’t realize I was doing until he suddenly held up his hand. “No, see I don’t want your advice; all I want from you is your encouragement and support.”

It’s a remark I’ve never forgotten but what did it really mean? Do people really NOT want a word of counsel, preferring instead to blunder blindly forward on their own? And if they won’t take advice from someone they know, will they take it from someone they’ve never met?

Well, if they’re smart they will, and if that someone is Jeanne Phillips also known as Abigail Van Buren, who now writes the feature her mother Pauline first brought to the world in 1956. Now, as then, ‘Abby’’ gives it to you straight. Take this recent response to a woman vexed with her husband who thinks it’s fine to read over his wife’s shoulder.

“I have tried explaining that I think it’s rude, but he says I’m rude for asking him not to do it. He thinks I have something to hide if I tell him to stop. What say you?” Abby’s reply: “I say you married a man who is insecure and suspicious, and you have my sympathy.”

Or take this exchange, with a woman so desperate to maintain ties with a former boyfriend that she buys him a bottle of his favorite wine, even though “he is making no effort to hang out” even to accept the gift. “At what point do I put the bottle to better use and drink it myself?” she asks. Abby’s reply:  “How about tonight?”

She’s equally frank with a man agonizing about his girlfriend who has three children from three different fathers and a male ‘friend’ who she has the children addressing as Daddy. “She says she loves me and wants us to be married, but I’m having a hard time accepting that all of these children’s fathers will be part of our life — as well as the ‘friend.’ Can a psychologist help me get past this?” Abby’s response: “I don’t know. But before you take this relationship further, you should definitely see one.”

Yes she says more in saying less.But what I ‘ve noticed is that sometimes saying nothing at all can also work pretty well in directing people toward good choices.

In my second year teaching, I was assigned Girls Room duty, which meant spending every lunch hour on a bench in a basement lavatory where one day a student from my sixth period class sat down beside me.

Her father had died the year before and she was just plain mad at the world. When she came to class at all she just sat scowling out the window. At quiz-time she would say she hadn’t done the reading and I should just give her the F.

Yet now here she was every day on my bench, where, as the months passed, she slowly began talking about things, including the extralegal bits of mischief she had cooked up the night before.

I just listened – until the day when she came to the end of this Daily Crime Report, paused, and blurted, “But I’m stopping all that now.”

“Why?” was all I could ask.

“Because I can tell that you think I should.”

She knew this not because I said so but because I didn’t and there was the revelation of a truth I have never forgotten: Namely that true attention makes a space in which the person speaking can truly hear and truly see himself – and then make a good decision on his own.

Double Blind

It’s a rare thing when Dear Abby misses the mark but she did yesterday I think. A guy wrote in to ask about the right way, the “normal” or “proper” way of closing the blinds at night. Should they be closed with the slats in the upward position, or was the downward position better? He and his his wife couldn’t agree. 

Abby replied that it wasn’t a a matter of what was ‘normal’ or ‘proper’;  it was a matter of what worked best for them. She could report however that tilting the slats up blocked more light than when tilting them down.  

But is that what you mostly worry about when it comes to your blinds?

Don’t you worry more about how easy it is for someone to look in when they’re titled each way? 

I say this if a passersby can get close enough to your window to kneel down in front of it and the blinds are tilted up, the person can see right in and find you toweling off your little bare self. If the person lives in the apartment above you and you don’t shut those downward-facing blinds tight tight tight they can see you too.

Maybe you don’t mind this, you have to ask yourself.

Do you feel OK about having someone see you gluing on your toupée or painting that hot caterpillar of wax on your upper lip before ripping off your mustache? That’s the real question, and like Abby says there’s no normal or proper about it.