The best advice I ever got was a question.
I was 17 and I was the living embodiment of a big hot mess. If it was ever depicted in a movie about teenage rebellion, I was doing it. (OK, “Less than Zero” came out that year, and I will admit to being outdone in self-destructiveness by the character Julian, as played by the young Robert Downey Jr. But I was in Oklahoma for Christ’s sake, and some options just weren’t available to me.)
One day, my mom, exasperated and afraid of where all this recklessness was taking me, asked me, “Do you even want to go to college?”
Of course I wanted to go to college. I was a voracious reader and dreamed of being a writer. You didn’t get to be a writer by working at a convenience store.
I know it defies credulity to contend that I hadn’t equated failing grades with rejected college admittance, but in my defense, I was a teenager, and a depressed, mixed-up one at that. Neuroscientists have proven that teens’ frontal lobes are only partially developed, making sound judgment a challenge in the best of circumstances.
Even still, my mom’s question swiveled my perspective in a way that none of her, nor my dad’s, recrimination ever could. I suddenly realized that my life was a car for which I was on the cusp of getting the keys. But instead of polishing it, I was trashing it. And it wasn’t my parents who were going to suffer if I totaled it. I would.
I managed to pull my grades out of the toilet and got accepted into a decent college on probation.
That is the power of a question. A question entertains all possibilities and hides no consequences. A question asks you what you want of your life, while advice tells you only what its giver expects. A question is empathetic because it cedes the last word.
Now we’re getting to what this column is about. It’s about finding answers to life’s hardships, both big and small, but without the emotional heuristic of advice-giving. Because truth is, people don’t like to be told what to do. What’s more, they don’t listen.
Here’s a list of good advice I did not take:
Wear sunscreen (my BFF and I literally laid out in Crisco back in the day).
Contribute to an IRA. (That’s an individual retirement account, not to be confused with the Irish Republican Army. I didn’t contribute to either.)
All things in moderation. (If only all the things I did take in moderation could average out the ones I didn’t. I have, for instance, always been extremely moderate in my consumption of sardines and prune juice.)
Don’t make any major changes in your first year of sobriety. (I quit my job and started a business in an area I knew nothing about).
Don’t bankroll your business on credit cards. (Against all odds, that one worked).
This list could go on for a very long time, but I think you get my point. That I’m bull-headed. But we all are. It’s a feature of our species. If we blindly trusted the advice of our elders, we’d still be huddled in caves. Thus my devotion to the question. Every sharp turn in my life was precipitated by someone I trusted asking me a question I was too afraid to ask myself. Or, by watching someone confront a secret I was too ashamed to acknowledge.
Self-examination is uncomfortable. We as a country are too eager to gloss over difficulty to get to the happy ending. We love transformation stories. We love to think our lives are just one fortuitous event away from being miraculous. Life is miraculous. But it’s also miserable and often both on the same day. Feeling shitty and uncertain isn’t a failing; it’s the human condition. Emotions are signposts leading us on a journey. As they say, the only way out is through. Or, to class it up with some Latin, Per aspera ad astra. Though hardship to the stars.
So a word about my background/qualifications. I have worked as a journalist as well as various other things, including a social worker, a university instructor, and a nanny. Presently, I make ice cream for a living.
My other qualifications: I have been both young and grown-up (sorta). Both married and divorced. Both employee and employer. Both closeted and been out. Both childless and a mother. Both self-medicated and sober. Both driven and aimless. Both a success and a failure.
In sum, I have experienced life, and its cumulative impact has been to forge me into a humble admirer of the strength, beauty, and resilience in each of us.
So I ask you to bring me your questions. About anything. Because let’s face it, we’ve got some pretty serious issues to contend with here. We may live in a place of stunning natural beauty, but suffering doesn’t care how pretty it is outside. In some ways, it makes it worse, like the universe is mocking your frailty. Early this year, I lost a friend. She was young, passionate, and self-assured. She’d overcome so much. Then, with little warning, she hanged herself. Hers is just one of the beautiful souls our community has lost.
That’s one of the big problems. But I’m here to tackle quotidian problems, too, because they drain our batteries, leaving us less juice to deal with the big stuff.
Partner, friend, parent, child, student, employee, consumer, victim, assailant — we all play many roles as we move through this life, and the roles bleed into each other without respect for boundaries or schedules. In this column, I decline to parse them out neatly, just as I decline to don a veil of authority. I disclose my mistakes not just to signal that this is a place to do so, but also because they are how I have grown and found a modicum of peace in my life. Hardships test us, form us, join us, and compel us. It’s time to start embracing them.
As a garden-variety human, I’m here to listen without judgment and hopefully provide a lens through which you might see your own solutions.