Nails on a chalkboard could not be more annoying. Normally I grit my teeth, smile, and scope out the nearest exit.
Years ago, for example, as I was waiting for an appointment with my deep tissue massage therapist, a woman came in, started chattering away, asking nosey questions about which of my body parts were in pain, and for how long. Before I knew it, she was pressing a business card into my palm.
I tried not to gape. Water. Blessed by a Zen priest. Asian holy water, as it were. Available online. Visa, MasterCard, or American Express. My first reaction was, And I thought Perrier was expensive.
Then the scientist in me starting asking all the obvious questions: How do you know a Zen priest actually blessed this water? What if he’s not really a priest, you know, with the proper, um, authorization? Does the lineage matter? What if some guy in Kalamazoo just fills your bottle from the kitchen faucet? Lead and bacteria and all? How would you know? What are the active ingredients—the water, the blessing, the priest, the bottle? The price? Oh, and have you ever heard of the placebo effect?
I didn’t ask these questions out loud, of course. That would have been rude. I just sat there, nodding, brain spinning like a hamster wheel.
Eventually, the massage therapist arrived and whisked me away. We joked about how mysterious and persistent my pain was. At one point, he picked up a Native American rattle and shook it over me to drive out the evil spirits. I laughed. He was joking, right?
I’ve been re-reading Mary Oliver’s beloved and much-anthologized poem “The Journey” this summer, seeing in it a reflection of my own journey through the vicissitudes of living with chronic neuromuscular pain, lo, these past 27 years.
“One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began,” she writes, “though the voices around you / kept shouting / their bad advice.”
Like the poet, one day I realized I had to embark on a journey, a journey that only I could undertake, alone. No doctor, no massage therapist, not even my wife could go with me. It was a journey, first, away from the narrow confines of other people’s advice, which they just kept shouting. No matter how much I plugged my ears.
What do voices like these keep shouting? As Mary Oliver puts it: “Mend my life!” That’s what the woman in the waiting room was saying, beneath all the talk about Zen holy water. It wasn’t about water. It wasn’t even about me. It was about her.
I know. I’ve done it myself.
When I give you advice you haven’t asked for (indeed, even if you have), I’m not really mending your life. I’m asking you to mend mine. By taking my sage advice. When you do, I feel oh so much better about myself, whether you feel better or not.
My advice, after all, is what works for me. The only way I could possibly know it would work for you is if I were to assume that you are exactly like me, in every possible way. So, of course I know what you should do.
And I keep shouting my bad advice, oblivious to the earth-shaking fact that you’re not me. You’re utterly unique. You’re you.
And we may be so different in so many ways, we might as well be different species. Your thoughts and ideas, your body, your pain, your reactions to pain, and what may or may not alleviate your pain are not mine. This is one reason my advice—which, inevitably, is based on my body, my experience, and my beliefs—may not be merely useless, but harmful to you. That’s what makes it “bad.”
Besides, there are so many so-called experts dispensing so much advice, you couldn’t possibly take it all. You’d choke to death. There are, for example, 46,803 books about chronic pain on Amazon.
Here’s another reason advice is bad. Every time I offer advice, especially unsolicited advice, it is received (however unconsciously) as a form of judgment. A subtle criticism.
My advice doesn’t just tell you what you ought to do. It tells you that, in my judgment, you’re too dumb to know what to do or to figure it out on your own. You’re not actually an adult with a mind—and body—of your own. You don’t even know how to make your own mistakes and learn from them! You need me and my precious advice! You’re inadequate as a human being. I’m smarter than you.
No wonder our first reaction to most advice, even “good” advice, is resistance. Or outright rebellion. (Just watch a child. Or a teenager. Or, better yet, notice how you feel when, as a mature adult, your own parents keep dishing out advice, even when you’re old enough to draw social security.)
If I want to be helpful, why on earth don’t I ask you first what you already know? What you have tried that actually works for you? What you’re quite capable of doing to help yourself?
Why do I assume, without checking, that you even want me to fix you, save you, or help you? Why don’t I assume that, in fact, you’re the world’s foremost expert in your own life and your own body? Why don’t I just keep my nose out of your beeswax?
This is why the poem goes on: “Little by little, / as you left their voices behind, / the stars began to burn / through the sheets of clouds, / and there was a new voice, / which you slowly recognized as your own.”
A new voice. Your voice. The voice of your own experience. Your own wisdom. That’s what you begin paying attention to, if you are truly “determined to do / the only thing you could do— / determined to save / the only life you could save.”
If you read a lot of Mary Oliver’s poetry, as I do, you learn that she grew up in a house filled with pain, some sort of abuse, and the sound of voices intent on their own salvation, at her cost. One day, she knew what she had to do. To save herself. She had to leave that house, and their voices, behind.
I, too, learned how to save myself. To take care of myself. To manage my own pain. To fill my own bottle, bless my own water.
I don’t want anyone else’s advice, good or bad, thank you very much. Even if I need to learn something new (which I do, quite often), I decide when, and what, and how to learn it. And when I facilitate groups or work with individuals in chronic pain, I try not to offer advice or so-called “expert opinion.” Instead, I try to listen with them to their own hard-won wisdom, however subtle and quiet it may be.
Two poems after “The Journey,” in the book where it was originally published (Dream Work, 1986), Mary Oliver describes a whole new sort of place that she began building in her imagination, in her dreams, to replace the claustrophobic space she left behind:
“What a change / from the cramped / room at the center / where I began, where I crouched / and was safe, but could hardly / breathe!” (“The House”)
That’s how it feels when we begin to take our own advice. We breathe again. We escape the tiny box we’ve confined ourselves to, the cramped room of our fears and limitations, our crushing need for safety at any cost. We begin building—from the inside out—a lighter, airier, more healing and life-giving place to inhabit for the rest of our lives.
When we trust our deeper, wiser selves, our own expertise. When we seek answers to our own questions. When we take risks and discover our own, quite unique solutions—even to the complex and often overwhelming problems of living with, say, chronic pain, or any pain that haunts and hurts us for years on end.
You Already Know
I suspect most of us already know what to do, most of the time, even if it’s just to take that next small step. Out the door. Into the wild night. Down a road full of fallen branches and stones, toward a future worth living for. All we need to do is recognize, and follow, the sound of our own voice.
“To hear / another’s voice,” writes David Whyte (“Start Close In,” River Flow, rev. ed., 2012), “follow / your own voice, / wait until / that voice becomes a / private ear / that can really listen to another . . . don’t follow / someone else’s / heroics . . . don’t mistake / that other / for your own.”
Unlike someone else’s heroics, that voice can, as Mary Oliver concludes, keep you company as you stride “deeper and deeper into the world,” on a journey full of surprises at every turn.
--Jay E. Valusek