Don't waste your good advice

Giving advice can be a good thing. I say that it can be, but not that it always is, because it actually isn't in all instances a good thing. There must be a genuine interest in the other person, a clear intention of helping them to achieve their goals; for your advice to be good it is required that you have taken some time to listen to them, have made an effort to understand them, have ascertained that you really have something to say, that indeed you have the competence to help. Otherwise, how could you be sure that what looks like well-meant mentoring isn't rather an attempt to use the other person for promoting your own purposes, or that you aren't just talking because you like to hear your own words?

Even from this brief reflection on what makes giving advice to others a good thing it is plain that this is an activity, something we engage in: we exercise our own personality in doing so. (As compared to handing out something, some 'wisdom stuff', as if it had been lying around in the attic until somebody came and collected it; advice is no ready-made stuff at all, it's constituted only by your active involvement.) Consider this parallel: when I give a book as a present, I do so only when I have read the book myself (and found it worthwhile), and more importantly, when I have satisfied myself that this particular book would be of interest and value to the person whom I'm giving it — after all, trusting my choice, they will spend a considerable amount of time reading it, and perhaps invest some thought or emotion in it. So I'd better not be thoughtless about what I choose: just giving them something that I've glanced at quickly at the bookstore and liked the cover is out of the question. And my choices tell something about me as well: they express my views about the receiver, and what I think may be valuable and interesting for them. (We inevitably expose a little bit of our own self at these occasions, which requires some trust, don't you think? Think about what that tells you about people whose presents show no thoughtfulness at all, presents they might have given to anyone, and quite possibly have done so, time and again.)

Even when it doesn't cost you a lot, you should carefully consider whom, and how often, you do give advice. By this I don't mean one should engage in horsetrading: it's not that you should give your advice only if you get something in return. And in general I don't think we should be selective: whether you help others should not depend on who they are; advice should not be misused as an instrument to promote some and disadvantage others. If you use your help selectively like that, then you do merely treat it as an instrument. (And as I have explained, the way you dispense advice reflects on your own character: not too well, in this case.) So I'm not saying you should give good advice only to your friends and family, but not to strangers, on account of it being a scarce resource. (Because it isn't.)

But there is a point at which you may suspend, even abandon your giving advice — and that's when you realize that you are talking to deaf ears. Advising someone is an interaction, it degenerates when there is no response; and so degenerates your ability to engage in it; that ability needs the constant feedback from the recipients. If there is no response, and you still continue over and over again to try to help, this will in the end blunt your skill in giving good advice.

The response I mean is not necessarily that they follow your recommendations. They may think it over and decide not to — and that's fine. It is not necessary that the person you counsel always does what you advise them to do, always thinks what you suggest they should think. So whether they follow your advice is up to them; it's their responsibility, and it's their decision. There's a difference between advising and missionizing. And there are good reasons to put some trust in their reason as well as in your own. Another matter, though, is whether they listen to, and appreciate your recommendations. If that's not happening, you better stop giving them. Take care.

Losing control

What about those people who claim that they "like to lose control" (or, in a variant, "enjoy being at the edge of losing control")? Sometimes one can be carried away by an emotion (like anger), an activity (e.g. involving sex, or dangerous situations), or a physiological stimulant (such as drink or drugs). How can something like this be valued, or even seem to be of value? What could be attractive in these episodes where one is being swept out of control?

What feels pleasant about this experience, I think, is a certain sense of relief, or escape — from the task of deciding what to think and how to act, from the responsibility of bringing your activities in harmony with your goals, in short: from your own self. What makes it even more attractive is that you are nonetheless acutely aware of what happens; as compared to sleeping, for example, you are still consciously experiencing what is going on, how it feels, even how it may affect others near you. But you are not strictly yourself anymore: although in a sense you are still responsible for what you do, the whole point of not being in control is that things take care of themselves (for better or worse), that it is no longer you who is in charge even of your own behavior, let alone developments in general.

But what sort of a participant makes that you? Not one who can be trusted, being pushed around by something else as you are; not one who is in touch with reality, since you have temporarily subscribed to the illusion of exemption from responsibility for your beliefs, feelings and actions; not one who can claim credit for anything beneficial that might emerge from the events. The only thing you get out of the whole affair is a transitory psychological state of questionable significance.

Of course, whole world views have been formulated that assign a rather deep importance to it: the experience of losing control to stronger forces puts your own being in perspective, it demonstrates to you how small and powerless you actually are, how meaningless all your striving really is within that vast, cold and inhospitable universe into which we all are thrown. And of course, if you are one of those rare people who can endure that glimpse of insight in the real proportions of your own significance, that is a distinction rather than a sign of weakness. Or so the theory goes.

But what is this if not an attempt to invoke high-flown language to exculpate an indulgence: it's always easier to lose yourself than change yourself; it's easier to escape for a while to where you don't have to face the fact that it's your actions that have made you what you are; it's easier to believe that the sensations you are fed make your life well-lived than to define and achieve your goals yourself. A fondness for the experience of losing control is a weakness of character.

Losing control is not the same as taking risks. Risks can be known and calculated in advance, and there doesn't have to be anything uncontrolled in a high-risk activity. Of course, to the extent an activity is risky, it is not in one's control — that is the very meaning of a risk. But when properly managed, the possible losses and dangers resulting from the risk are taken into account and accepted, normally because they are offset by the benefits that might be gained from the situation. Deliberately taking risks is precisely not a case of losing control — if anything, it is a more controlled way of dealing with things than simply not factoring in any risk in one's expectations. Some people may tend to take higher risks than others, but if they choose to do so because of greater opportunities, that's a specific way of exercising choice, and on that level, they are actually very much in control.

True enough, it is not always possible to be fully in control — we all know it isn't; in some cases it can be unreasonable, even downright self-destructive, to obsessively cling to the desire to keep in charge — sometimes we simply can't. We all have to learn to cope with these situations (and with our retrospective realizing what has happened, our experiencing us as acting in away against, or despite, ourselves). But there is a difference between accepting them and embracing them, between being able to endure them and actively seeking and enjoying them.

Enjoying to lose control, then, is a character fault. On the other side of the spectrum, being afraid of losing control seems to be faulty as well. This is not, of course, because losing control is after all not such a bad thing. Rather, it is because fearing something that should be up to you anyway is unwise. If it is up to you to keep in control, then you should do so — what would be the point of being afraid then? If you have reason to expect you won't be in control in some future situation, then you should think about how to avoid this, if at all possible, or else you must accept it. There seems to be no point at which fearing the future situation looks as if it may contribute anything useful. Take care.

Stability and value

The really valuable things in our lives, such as friendship, love, and integrity of character, cannot be bought. And while that may be a platitude, it's worth reflecting on why it should be so. That they cannot be bought means that you can't get them in exchange for something else, like money, favorable behavior to someone, or pleasure; there cannot be such a deal, because the latter things are not equivalent, they're not nearly as valuable. And why are they? Perhaps because they can expire, or be taken away from you; they will get stale, and at any time, they are at some risk. (They can also expose you to risk, by awakening envy and hatred in others who lust after them.) And look at it the other way round: you wouldn't sell anything that has true value for something like money or fame. (Would you give away the lives or the happiness of your children for wealth or celebrity?)

Some things you can only achieve yourself. That's why they are so valuable: once you have achieved them, you know exactly what you have in them, they don't depend on anything, or anyone, but yourself. And again, these cannot be compared to (or exchanged with) other, external goods, precisely because they don't have that kind of value: they're transient, unreliable, and at risk.

You can delegate tasks that are expected of you; you can hire people who can do things you can't (sing at your parties, sort out your tax paperwork, find you a nice apartment, ...); you can buy many pleasures. But you can't delegate forming your character; you can't hire someone to make sense of your life for you (or perhaps you can, but then how would you know it is really for your own good, and not his?); you can't buy the joy that comes only from acting well — and knowing, feeling that you do so. Take care.

Be straightforward with yourself (and in good time)

Yes, I have suggested more than once that you carefully reflect — take your whole life into view, from the beginning to the end, think about what sort of person you want to be, and how this would have to show in the way you are living. Is it all how it should be? Are you doing what you can to improve it? It doesn't matter what you tell me, of course. You have to satisfy yourself that you are doing well. Are you doing well?

Remember, it won't do to try and fool yourself — all that will just lose you time, precious time. When your final moment comes, you won't believe it anymore, even if you do now. You will simply see through your own devices of deception (nobody else knows how to do that as well as you do). And it'll be too late then to change. Take care.

Gaining control

On one of my bookshelves, I have a bust of Socrates. From time to time I walk by that shelf and my eyes fall on the sculpture. Whenever this happens, I take a moment and reflect on what I'm doing right then. What would Socrates have to say about it? Would I do the same thing, and do
it in the same way, if he were standing beside me, watching me?

Sometimes this brief meditation makes me rethink my plans. At other times, I simply go on without any alteration. But on the whole, I've changed: the habit helps me to step out of the flow of daily life, reflect more often on what I'm doing, thinking, feeling — and if necessary, adjust. It ascertains that the contents of my reflections are applied frequently and consistently.

In this function, it is not unlike a control technique as used in many areas of engineering. But there is more to it than that: it also shapes my relationship with myself, the way I interact with the tendencies and dispositions that shape my character (for the better and worse).

For example, I have experienced my 'inner voice' becoming more clearly
audible: I'm better aware of my thoughts in a given situation. And much to my own surprise, what this inner voice has to say isn't always good, that is, it's really not well thought-out many, many times. It's
simply bad advice. But, astonishingly, more often than not, the better options are clearly recognizable. (Or to put it differently, I know better than my inner voice by far — but how can that be the case, seeing that it is my inner voice?) And sadly enough, I've still found myself following it's corrupt counsel again and again.

Since I'm more alert to this nearly inaudible whispering, since I've
started forcing it out into the open, I have gained control, bringing my own considered thinking back to guide my feelings and actions. That's easier now: I can actually consider what it says, challenge it — and correct it, with all the determination and firmness that is required. You should know your inner voice, and shape it, if at all possible. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.