I sometimes read advice columns. I’m not sure whether this is an acknowledgment or a confession–probably it’s both. I want to take seriously the task of practicing the virtue of discernment, as Hebrews 5:14 commends us to: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” An advice column provides both a window into a strange and unusual situation, and a glimpse of how someone else might reason through it. It’s the latter quality that seems worthwhile: the former has a voyeuristic quality to it, which is both what makes it mildly pleasurable and disturbing.
The rise of advice as a moral category has deep roots within our culture, of course: the guru-ization of life (cf. Peterson, Jordan) arises when local communities and family structures no longer transmit the practical wisdom we need to navigate the world well. The loss of the confessional booth means even that the ethicists’ exposure to the complicated realms of life is limited to what he sees in the headlines, or what God decides to place before him directly. And because the ethicist is tasked with reading so many of the headlines, little arises in the course of one’s own life that is sufficiently ‘interesting’ for deep reflection.
If you are not an ethicist, of course, you should rejoice. And then you should swap 'advice columns’ for 'Netflix’ above, and then repent.
See, this is what ethicists do: we take away the minor joys that make life in our late-modern, global capitalist, sexually-libertine era even mildly pleasurable. If we cannot enjoy even advice columns, of all things, what is left to us? Must they, too, be signs of the decay of our era? Is nothing sacred, not anything?
Never mind all that, though. Let’s just call admit advice columns are a sign of a deracinated society, and get on with reading them. I don’t plan on giving up my guilty pleasure any time soon, and certainly not right now. After all, the above is simply my elaborate rationalization of my bitterness that no one has yet asked me to write an advice column. (My theme: It depends.) <–Not really.
Besides, the New York Times’ advice column currently has the virtue of having a serious person at the helm–which is more than most can say. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s latest column has a number of situations that are delightfully ordinary
, like the person whose friend has delayed marriage to a mediocre boyfriend, and is risking losing her fertility window as a result. Should the individual speak up and encourage her friend to find a spouse, so as to help her avoid later regrets if she doesn’t get pregnant?
Appiah’s answer is unsurprising, but disappointing: he suggests that if all this is true, it is probably already known to the woman, and that one should only speak up if one is confident the promptings would be successful. “It is an important maxim, widely ignored, that intervention is a good idea only if it is likely to make things better.“
Oh, but is it? Appiah indicates the downsides of intervention, namely anxiety and resentment. But such anxiety might be a spur to action. And friendship is the sort of place, if anywhere, we we are supposed to risk resentment. The maxim is certainly underdeveloped: when must we expect things to be better, and after what sorts of disruptions or pains? There is a peace we must learn to relinquish, as a prayer I once encountered put it, in order to win a peace that will endure. Risking the temporary cessation of normal friendly relations for the sake of truth-telling (in love, clearly!) is its own "gift of friendship.” It may even be the highest form.
It seems odd to tell people what they already know. But for many of us weak human beings, knowing the good isn’t sufficient to move us to do it: it helps immensely to know someone else knows our good, and is keeping us accountable to it. The call to action comes from outside of us, and where better than from a trusted friend who sees us mired in mediocrity? “Friend, come up higher” can sometimes mean simply saying out loud what we know those listening already know, and have not yet learned to live.