Lately, I’m puzzled. My friends and colleagues are suddenly giving me unsolicited advice, when it used to be a rare occurrence. I’m trapped in it, though I have to admit it opens a side door to the twin mysteries of caring and helplessness. I’m being offered fresh perspectives on the present moment, alternative healing, how to strengthen the will to live, on and on. Sometimes I just want to talk about the new Japanese restaurant down the street, but I get the serious eyes, the lowered voice. Then I know advice is coming my way. All of it is benevolent, embedded in hope, wrapped in a wish, something like this: Listen, doctors don’t know that much about cancer when you come right down to it. You have to believe you are the true agent of healing.
All this caring is great, intended to keep the fight in me and delay the loss for them. But I don’t know where to file the stories about people I’ll never meet. I’ve collected ten variations: my friend was told he had four months to live and he’s still going strong five years later. He tried so-and-so juice, found herbal remedies, and went to a healer in (circle one) South America, Mexico, India. You should definitely give alternative medicine a try. I could counter by mentioning another friend of mine was diagnosed only two months ago and is already among the daisies. But I don’t.
Privately, I wonder what happened to raging against the night? Also, I’ve been thinking about those old cowboy movie scenes where a man is cradled by his buddy under a tree after catching a bullet. It’s crunch time, and the friend invites his partner to close his eyes and walk into a fine June morning. I suppose that’s Hollywood.
Then I think, Wait a minute, there’s a catch. I never saw it before getting sick. Isn’t that just another kind of advice? Why the suggestion of the June morning? Why not mention the prostitute in Abilene as a final image for the cowboy? Or ask a question. It seems there’s no escape from giving the advice one would like to receive, or at least its little cousin: the suggestion. I’ve got some serious wonder going on. When I get a whiff of advice these days, I’m a little envious of those who will live long enough to figure it all out. Not that there will be an ultimate figuring. I’d settle for a deepening, and a mirror on the subject.
Growing old brings wisdom to some; entrenched, mindless habits to others. It’s nice think of silencing the automatic tendency to unburden the self by offering thoughtless advice, but reflection is the harder road. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much. Kindness is a quality that can be sensed, and that’s the important part.
Still, bad advice is like a thistle in my sock when I’m on the dirt road down to the river. When it’s ill-timed, it doesn’t feel any good at all. I hear a swish of words, but all I can offer is a vacant nod, because it’s oddly not intended for me. It’s fortunate when I can locate a benevolent intent; then it’s like a welcome glass of water. For one thing, it means I have real friends - helpless friends who are upset, searching for impossible words. I love the company of a wish, though I admit the cancer survivors among my friends have the best credibility. They understand dread first hand.
I’m no different than my friends. I give plenty of unwitting advice, some of it so redundant, it should be a felony. I figure it’s tidal; rising in the atmosphere of suffering, then lowering when things are light. How many times have I heard the most irritating piece of advice for all time: don’t blame yourself (when of course I do). It begs a little analysis.
I’ll use myself as the example. A friend hurts his back. I sympathize, empathize, ask questions. Then comes the pause. There’s a strange impulse to tell a parallel story. There I go telling the poor guy about the time I hurt my back, and what helped. Tagging along, three breaths behind, is a little do or don’t - a caveat, a reminder. I’ve noticed a universal compulsion to say, hey, that reminds me of when I…? It’s horribly off the mark, I know. Can anyone help it? I don’t know.
Let’s say a friend comes into unexpected money. There you are with some thinly disguised envy, spoiling the moment by bringing up the tax consequences of windfalls. Can you think of a better joy-killer? How about reminders that aren’t really needed, but you feel comforted by your own voice saying, don’t forget to…, be sure and…(take your umbrella, don’t get stuck in the rain).
What’s the deal? If you don’t give advice at all, you’re probably not being a very good friend, and withholding can even be cruel. It can be a loving warning to tell a friend, sure, that guy is charismatic, but he’s hurt some really good friends of mine. You should stay away from him. That’s the good kind, since it’s truly about preventative medicine.
Or your mouth is on fire after trying the green salsa dip. Decent people say (gasping), don’t do what I just did, you’ll be sorry. Also the good kind of advice. It’s caretaking. Take book reviews or movies; go see this movie right away. Drop everything. I know you’ll love it because I know you. No argument. I’m all in.
But in the wrong mood, someone telling you what to do feels patronizing, infantilizing, distancing. It’s like a monster movie nobody will ever make, titled Attack of the Hideous Shoulds. Who among us takes our own advice? Few, very few.
When I hear someone I care about is sick, it’s no longer business as usual. Something has to be said that reflects the gravity – a mix of anger and protection. What could be more human? The problem with cancer is that, at some level, it’s humiliating to have it, and a nightmare to tell loved ones. It’s another nightmare for them to know it, and feel compelled to say something meaningful, but often, on account of numb shock, nothing comes.
Here’s the problem: now when we’re chatting, a friend will say, I was going to tell you about my arthritis and the argument I had with my boss, but it feels trivial and irrelevant. You’ve got enough on your plate. Promise you’ll pester your doctor for the latest clinical trials, and here, read this article.
My friends no longer want to talk about politics or world news, or show me their cool new gadgets, or mention their toothaches and such. I miss the old ways. It helps a little when I tell them, believe it or not, I actually want to know your latest book or movie review. I’m tired of catching everyone up on medical news, but it’s upstream against a current of concern.
I would not compare my many loves. A few have surprised me with disclosures, like; I wish I could take your cancer, I’ve been ready to die for a while. I just never mention how miserable I am in this world. Wow! I didn’t see that one coming. For most, there’s a hop-scotch leap to self-reference; I wouldn’t have any treatment at all (or) I’d want someone, anyone but a family member, to pull the plug. But that’s just me.
And I didn’t even ask.
Now that I’m thinking about it all, what is this strange word: just? I’ve noticed there’s a kicker, usually a little speech – regular people suddenly showing a philosophical side I didn’t know was in them. The guy who fixes my car said: all our attachments and emotions can make us petty, secretive, or resentful. Humans can’t possibly be the endpoint of evolution. Just think, you’ll be free from the suffering human form. I wish he were my psychologist, since he threw that gem in for free, along with my oil change. I don’t know why I told my mechanic I was sick; I suppose I always sensed he was a mystic, plus we always find our way to the subject of keeping old cars running for years. There are plenty of people I don’t tell. I don’t want the flood.
Now that I have cancer, I see other shifts in the language of friends. Suddenly it’s our lives, no longer your life. I admit, I like the plain version best; I’m so sorry you’re ill. I think it’s the best genuine sentiment of all time.
When you tell someone you have cancer, it’s like a trump card. The first reaction is the loss of breath and a hand to the heart, followed by a gigantic pause. Soon, it gets silly. I end up apologizing for having cancer and my friend apologizing for feeling helpless. Everyone is genuinely sorry. The caring comes through in voice and respectful silence. It’s enough, really. There will be no report card.
My response lately is to give friends advice on living. After all, I’ve got automatic credibility. I’ll say something like; any one of us could be hit by a bus this very day. I’m trying to enjoy the time I still have: that’s my motto. The friend is relieved, and agrees with gusto. Then I ask myself, why do I mention a bus and I never seem to mention a stroke or heart attack? I could have said, you could be hit by a bus, not me, thank God. But of course I don’t.
I don’t like the envy of thinking a less deserving person might live to be a hundred. So I fall back on the thought we’re in this life together in this moment. It’s all we have with certainty. Too many friends have already had a stroke or a heart attack, so these are off the menu of catastrophic reminders. It’s universal, this we business, also the I/thou split. Now look who’s getting philosophical.
I’ve also been known to offer the cheerful thought about the sun exploding. It’s weirdly tempting to remind friends the sun might have just exploded and it’ll take eight minutes and twenty seconds for the ultimate incineration. Meantime, we’re enjoying a great cup of coffee and should really savor it. It might be the last savoring moment we get. This brings total agreement for one millisecond, followed by a long look at the pavement.
Why can’t we simply sustain a sense of wonder until the very end? I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying for. Everyone agrees in principle. I’m settling for honesty and awkwardness.
I leave it to the next generation to ponder. A surprising number of my non-religious friends are confident that the great recycling of energy is benevolent, magnificent, and that infinite consciousness awaits. I’m still a little fuzzy on the infinite part. Must be the pain meds. My religious friends are sure everything will be revealed according to their faith, and I’ll be delivered from fear and suffering. All I know is every healing wish and prayer brings a kind of symmetry, like wings of a butterfly as it leaves the yard, over the fence, short in days, searching.