The Relativity Of Advice


"Look before you leap," states a well-known proverb. Sounds like good advice, until one comes face to face with another, equally well-known proverb: "He who hesitates is lost." For a bona fide lover of "folk wisdom", the dilemma presented by these two apparently contradictory proverbs is serious, indeed. Isnít the first one telling us to be cautious, prudent, and deliberate before taking action, while the other seems to be pushing us to act quickly, decisively, and without delay, not to allow indecision or excessive reflection to get in the way of our deeds? Whatís a proverb lover to do?!

Maybe itís just something with these two, you might think, some kind of mix-up, or breakdown in the proverb mentality. Great, nobodyís perfect, not even the wise "everymen" and "everywomen" who make up this kind of stuff. Just a momentary lapse in the genius of folk wisdom production. Until you come to this pair of sayings: "Honesty is the best policy" (the moral of a fairy tale, in which a liar is severely punished); and "He who tells the truth must have one foot in the stirrup" (an old, possibly Armenian proverb, which refers to the fact that if you tell the truth, you better be ready to jump up on your horse and ride off before you are attacked for saying something nobody wants to hear). OKÖ Now what?

At first disappointed by this lack of consensus in the world of proverbs and folk wisdom - for all of us sometimes feel in need of an old master, someone like Yoda from Star Wars to guide us through lifeís uncertainties, or, lacking such an individual, recourse, at least, to the sayings, wit, traditions and teachings of older, "wiser" times - I suddenly realized that the contradictions between beloved proverbs were only a way of bringing me to a new and important insight. Which is that no piece of advice is a treasure, by itself; for its value exists only relative to the individual who receives it. I call this concept the "relativity of advice", and as time goes on, I find myself becoming more and more convinced that it is not just a clever invention of my intellect, a way of creating something shiny in my mind, but a deep truth which has great meaning for all of us.

In some ways, Jesus said this when he said: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." (Matthew 7:6) Which shows us, in a vivid way, that the power of advice is not all contained in the advice, itself, but just as much contained in the ability of a person to receive it. A piece of advice that might transform one personís life completely, might, therefore, have absolutely no effect on someone else.

But the concept I want to get across goes beyond the idea that some people will listen to good advice, and some will not. What I really want to say is that there is often no such thing as "good advice", in the sense of universally constructive and helpful advice that applies to all people, and to all situations. There is only advice that is good, or right, for some people; and advice that is good, or right, for others.

Take the case of the following piece of advice: "You must take care of yourself, before you can take care of others." This advice could be really helpful to some people. To those who always sacrifice themselves for others, who always give up their happiness and their time, and sometimes their health and safety, to try to make others happy through their suffering and self-denial, it could serve as a potent reminder not to forget about themselves, in the process. After all, they are alive, and they count, too. It could also help them to realize that if they let themselves become too fatigued, depressed, devitalized, and eroded by self-sacrifice, they may lose the strength and energy they need to help others. Just like in the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs, they must come to respect the fact that the golden eggs come from the goose, and that if the goose dies (or is burned out), there will be no more golden eggs to give. This basic insight is, quite dramatically, applied in the warning signs that instruct passengers what to do in the event of an emergency aboard an airplane. Parents who are traveling with children are advised, in the event of an emergency which depressurizes the cabin, to put on their own oxygen mask before putting masks onto their children. At first, it seems counterinstinctual, contrary to the spirit of parenthood, ruthless and cynical; until the logic becomes clear. If the parent blacks out from lack of oxygen, the child may not have the knowledge or ability to retrieve and correctly put on his own mask. It is therefore imperative that the parent puts on his mask first, in order to protect his ability to protect his children. Once he has secured his own ability to function in the emergency environment, he can then act effectively to save his loved ones.

On the other hand, say that someone is egotistic, cynical, a "looking out for number one" type, who wants to be first, best, highest, and is so driven by this desire that he often pays little attention to how his efforts to achieve these things might be affecting others. For a person like this, the piece of advice just mentioned - "You must take care of yourself, before you can take care of others" - is the very last thing he needs to hear! It will only provide him with an excuse to keep on acting in the selfish way he is accustomed to, only help him to justify his egotistic actions.

As this shows, good advice for one person - emotional medicine to help heal a wounded soul - could turn out to be poison for another person, helping to perpetuate the smallness of his heart.

The same could be said for the following piece of folk wisdom: "Sometimes, in order to be true to yourself, you must be willing to hurt others." Some sensitive souls will sense, at once, the importance of the message contained in these words. For very often, we allow ourselves to be limited and suffocated in life by our loyalty to other peopleís expectations and desires. The parents who want us to be a doctor, and turn us away from the path of being an artist. The spouses who want us to give up our social life and our outside interests, or who want us to stay, when the situation they are creating is killing us. We donít want to hurt them, or let them down. The thought of their tears, their disappointment, their recrimination, haunts us, and traps us in the role of being somebody we do not really want to be. For the sensitive soul, abuse need not be physical, brutal, and primeval; it may be subtle, "passive", and emotional. Rather than being controlled by a "perpetrator", a pain-giver, we may be threatened with becoming a kind of "perpetrator" if we do what we want, as the other person sits down in our path, like a person on the train tracks, not allowing us to go where we want to without running him or her over. We are constrained, not by othersí ability to harm us, but by our ability to harm others. And our controllers do not dominate us by raising their fists, but by turning themselves into glass - prisons of glass surrounding us on all sides, who we can escape from only by breaking them.

For a sensitive person, caught in a situation like this, the saying - "Sometimes, in order to be true to yourself, you must be willing to hurt others" - is like a piece of gold, giving life. Imprisonment of the kind described is utterly unjust, and the moral burden really must be upon the prison guard to outgrow his dominating vulnerability, and to come to respect and appreciate the needs of the person he is trying to control; and if pain is the only way he is able to learn, so be it. Certainly, the burden should not be upon a person who just wants to live his or her own life, for the little time God has given any one of us to be upon the earth.

But, once again, this advice is gold, only relative to he or she who receives it. In "the wrong hands", it could be counterproductive and harmful, for it could encourage an already cruel person to continue being cruel, making others bleed on his way to what he wanted.

And the list goes on. Take this folk song, not advice, per se, and yet definitely inspirational, and, in some ways, therefore, serving the same motivational purpose as a proverb:

We will fight together

We shall not be moved

We will fight together

We shall not be moved

Just like a tree

Thatís planted by the water


Shall not

Be moved.

Stand your ground. Resist force. Donít give in. You can do it. This seems to be the implicit advice transmitted by this song. Good advice for some people, and for some situations. But then, for other people and other situations, perhaps the old fable about the reed and the oak tree - advice disguised as a story - might be more appropriate. The reed that bent with the wind survived the storm, but the tree that stood tall against it, was finally broken by the power it could not resist. Sometimes, being flexible, backing off a little, giving concessions, seeming to give in for a time, is the best way to preserve what one values, in the long run. A spirited person, naturally inclined to fight, confronted with a no-win situation, would definitely be better served by the advice that comes from the story of the reed and the oak tree; while a more timid person, one less likely to stand up for his rights, or those of others, even when he had a chance to prevail, might be better served by the song "We Shall Not Be Moved", to stir his blood to make a stand.

What all of this is leading to seems to be the fact that the value of advice can never be determined without also knowing who is to be the recipient of the advice, and what are the conditions being faced by that recipient. Or, to state it in another way: the value of advice comes not so much from its actual content, as from the relationship which exists between the advice and the recipient of the advice. What a brave man needs to hear may be very different from what a frightened man needs to hear. ("Donít be reckless"/"Donít let yourself think of the danger.") What an egotistic man needs to hear may be very different from what an altruistic man needs to hear. ("Be the first one to lift a load, and the last one to put it down"/"Never forget to make time for yourself.") It seems that, in some ways, what advice is doing, whenever it is helpful to us, is actually working to move us towards a position of balance in our lives: cautioning the brave man, goading and exhorting the frightened man; humbling the arrogant man, lifting up the self-doubting man; teaching the egotist to be compassionate, encouraging the altruist to include himself in his compassion; cooling the heat, warming the cold; quieting movement, moving stillness. What may be universal may be the value of achieving balance in life - not the advice which is used to get us there, which must vary in order to help each individual, who is in a different position relative to that ideal state, to arrive at his destination. In this way, there is not one set of directions for getting to Chicago. If you are in New York, you must travel west, if you are in San Francisco, you must travel east, if you are in New Orleans, you must travel north, and if you are in Minneapolis, you must travel south. The directions that you are given must take into account where you are starting from, and so, I imagine, it must be in order for the advice on life we are given to have value.

Balance, though it is a word which enables our minds to reach a vital concept, crucial for living, and for understanding life, is also frequently misunderstood. To some modern Westerners, it is "too oriental", it makes them think of yin and yang; of various exotic healing systems which focus on restoring balance in the bodyís flow of energy ("chi" in Chinese, "ki" in Japanese), in order to quiet the overactive, and to stimulate the overly passive; or of the blind Shaolin master speaking to "Grasshopper" in Kung Fu. Well, all I can say in regard to this is, "Tough luck!!!" Balance is important, whether it is a central component of our own Western civilization, or not (and, as a matter of fact, it was highly revered by the ancient Greek philosophers, who are part of "our own" cultural heritage). Many Westerners not yet captivated by the wisdom of the East tend to shy away from time-honored oriental conceptions of balance and harmony, imagining that the ultimate goal of the Eastern wise man is to be a serene, quiet, emotionless, zombie sitting on top of a mountain. But that has nothing to do, of course, with what balance is really all about. Balance does not mean a lack of passion. Balance does not mean a lack of life, a lack of heart, a lack of motion. Balance does not mean the spark is killed. Balance is only the effective management and integration of our disparate tendencies. It is the state which keeps the balls, attached to the end of the cords of the bola, from flying off into space, and rendering the bola useless. The bola is able to accomplish a great deal, at its time of deployment, it is like a whirlwind in the hands of a man, and yet, its energy, its vitality, and its power, is preserved by its own internal balance, which prevents it from coming apart as it is used. In the same way, balance supports action when the time is right for action, and stillness, when the time is right for stillness.

Additionally, it should be stated that "balance" does not necessarily imply that there is one "standard" and "perfect" state for all of us. I believe that the Universe has made us all to be unique and different, and that in addition to the balance that each one of us is able to attain and experience within, there is also the balance which is able to be established between different individuals, who, if each does his or her own work to truly manifest his or her genuine self, may come together to form a harmonious community. A community in balance. Balance does not mean dullness, nor uniformity. What it really means is LIFE, attaining its maximum sustainable potential.

While, hopefully, no one who is reading this is closed to the word "balance", nor oblivious to its importance to us all as a crucial destination for our inner growth to take us, some may still object to my concept of the "relativity of advice", insisting that there is some advice, which is, after all, truly universal. What about advice urging us to seek a state of balance?! Well, youíve got me there. Most likely, youíre right. Probably some advice, if carefully-enough worded and structured, could be pretty much universal (and of course weíre not talking about obvious things like "Donít sit on top of cobras"). What about the classic adage, the "golden rule", "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? Admittedly, it sounds pretty good, except for the fact that some masochists may like to be beaten with whips, so that that advice could produce some sorry results for the rest of us. Or consider the man who sees land in terms of real estate and the money he can make, and therefore would be happy to see a beautiful cherry orchard cut down, so he could start a housing development there. If he cut down an orchard which meant the world to you, an act that was like driving a nail through your heart, he still would have been obeying the golden rule, in its most literal interpretation, for what he did to you would in no way bother him if it was done to him. Finally, what about the suicidal man? He wants to die, so does that mean he should be able to kill you, first? Obviously, the golden rule must be applied quite carefully if it is to succeed in achieving its intention, and establishing something close to a universal law of human conduct. Applied on a superficial level, or by disturbed or emotionally numb individuals, it, too, could become merely an excuse for committing transgressions against others, and against life, itself.

All of this tends to suggest that in order to give meaningful advice to others, we must make an effort to understand them more deeply, to know what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing, and what they need, to have some sense of why they are here. We canít assume that they are just like us, that they want what we want, need what we need, are motivated by what motivates us, or are here to fulfill the same purpose in life that we are.

Meanwhile, for those of us hoping to find the "right advice", it seems that we must have some sense of what the right advice is, to begin with, in order to be able to recognize it and utilize it. Which backs up the ancient idea that only we, ourselves, can save ourselves; and that salvation starts from within, as something we must struggle to attain, never expecting to receive it from the hands of another. Instead, when we do receive that all-important, crucial, life-changing advice, it will come to us less in the form of a revelation, than in the form of another voice telling us what we already, secretly know; reinforcing something which is already present in us, rather than giving us something which is absent.

Walking through the forest of life, we will encounter trees filled with fruits, some of them life-giving, and some of them poisonous, some of them good for some people, and some of them good for others. We are the ones who will have to decide which fruits are right for us; which ones to pick from the trees, and use to sustain ourselves on our journey.


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