Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Advice about Advice

Different cultures have different degrees of privacy and openness. I was once vastly edified when an Egyptian friend described a street scene in Cairo. A woman threw open her shutters and began lamenting her misfortunes to the neighbourhood. "Oh ground, swallow me up!" she demanded. And all the passersby paused and joined eagerly in her lamentations.

This would never happen in my native Toronto, where the reaction of the neighbours would be "Pipe down!" and "We don't want to hear it" or frosty silence. In Glasgow, of course, public irony is eagerly embraced, and B.A. and I were highly startled when B.A. made an ironic comments about a much-lauded public figure, and a passing Glaswegian stopped to loudly agree and elaborate on B.A.'s point. We Edinburghers are not quite that matey, on the whole, although you can elicit groans of fellow feeling among us if you say "What bloody weather" or "Sun for once!"

In North America, there are differing philosophies about how much privacy children should have. There are parents who never enter their children's rooms and giggle at signs barring them. But such signs would be unthinkable to various European and Asian parents, who would be outraged at such disrespect. Personally I would do as my mother did and attack every room with piles of clean laundry and a vacuum cleaner. Oh, what heaven to imagine my mother bringing me clean laundry (ironed!) and hoovering my room now. And my diary is now under password protect. Ah ha ha ha!

One of the biggest questions of social life is when you are respecting privacy and when you are being neglectful or, looking at it from the opposite direction, when you are being a supportive friend and when you are being meddlesome. And this is particularly difficult for Christians when we are conscious of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, which include "Instruct the Ignorant" and "Admonish the Sinner." That last one is particularly embarrassing to the British.

As I alluded to yesterday, one of the joys of marriage is that you clearly have someone who has the right to instruct your ignorance and admonish you for your sins. Before you are married, the only people who have the right to do that are your parents and, in their absence, your supervisory grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings (heaven help us), priests, teachers and parole officers, if applicable. However, I do recall in all-girls' school a sort of social self-policing, in which we stood as advocate, prosecutor, judge and jury over each other. For some reason, it has always stuck in my mind that when X saw Y kissing Z outside the St M's Choir School Dance in 1986, she cried, "What a putana! That's the kind of kiss you give your husband!" Of course, the fact that X's great friend Q had a crush on Z, and Y had effectively "stolen" Z from Q, probably heightened X's resentment of Y's behaviour. And her censure was rather strict even for 1986, though truth never changes and therefore she was right that such a kiss was inappropriate, though wrong that Y was a putana. (Y was a very nice girl, actually.) But she would not have had the right to inform Y she was acting like a putana (the worst thing you were likely to be called at my school), unless Y had asked her directly.

One of the amusing things about my moral development is that it began with my parents rather Edwardian take and in high school was strongly informed by the morality of Southern Italians who migrated to Toronto after 1950. J. was not allowed to wear nail polish. N. was not allowed to date. V. (Sicilian) was shoved into an arranged marriage. My mother was a crazy liberal next to my Italian-Canadian friends' parents, let me tell you. Where was I?

Oh yes, admonishing sinners. Eeek!

I am not for admonishing sinners unless they are sinning right in front of me, generally by trying to set fire to something on the grounds of the Historical House, aka My Home, although I think I said "This is outrageous! Stop that!" when a snarling, drunken woman battled with an innocent female bouncer in the seat beside me on the bus. Thus I usually reserve my admonishments to actual criminal behaviour.

The big exception is when I am asked for advice, as I frequently am, by email.

As you may have noticed, I love giving advice. I love giving advice so much that I really have to be careful not to annoy people with unsolicited advice. If people ask me what I think, I will tell them. But otherwise I strive with might and main to keep my mouth shut and my fingers from writing "helpful" emails. St Edith Stein's take on feminine helpfulness is that we should wait until it is clear our help is needed, offer our help without fanfare, quit helping when we are no longer needed, and then melt into the background again--rather like St. Anthony finding us our lost articles.

Of course there are times when one really should put oneself forward, but only to say, "I'm worried about you. Are you okay?" or "Do you need help?"--as you might ask a complete stranger flailing about with a map. But I don't recommend moral lectures unless you are on very intimate terms. Since sin leads inexorably to unhappiness, you could always say, "I'm worried about you. You don't seem very happy to me. Want to talk about it?" Then sit still and listen. Don't say what you think unless you are asked directly or--and this is a big or--to prevent great harm to someone else. If a friend tells you that she is strongly tempted to kill herself or her child, then this would be a very good time to give advice, even if indirectly, through stories. For example, the one time I ever said anything suicidish (in my worst depressive episode ever), my best pal told me that she wished her friend who had committed suicide had killed anyone but herself. She could have forgiven her for murdering somebody else, but not suicide. Whew! What a contrast to Father Rolheiser, eh? And probably a lot more effective. Trish is an intensely tolerant gal, but she drew the line, and I appreciate that. She said the hard thing at the right time--which is what best friends are for, really.

The Poles are greatly given to blunt truth-telling and have different words for different categories of friendship. They do not (well, the men do not) pretend everyone is their BFF. Thus, someone they know well enough to befriend on Facebook, say, is a znajomy/a (acquaintance), and someone they like a lot is a kolega/koleżanka (pal). But a przyjaciel/przyjaciółka is a best friend, and so by definition, they have only one--maybe two. My advice about unsolicited advice is that, unless someone's life or limbs* are on the line, you confine it to your przyjaciołom.

*It is your duty to do your best to prevent drunk people from driving, for example.

1 comment:

Gregaria said...

Thanks for writing this. I've accidentally given unsolicited advice a few times and regretted it later. It can be hard to hold back, but it's always better to keep my mouth shut.