When I used to walk home from school in the depths of winter, I would wind my way through sidewalks on suburban streets, come to a walkway and enter a big field. The field, as we conceived of it, was actually a shortcut home, but if you were walking through a foot of snow it was a different story. The best you could do was step through the footsteps of whomever was the first poor soul who decided to take the field home.
Often, walking home with my brother, I’d walk in his footsteps, avoiding the cold snow entering my boots. Occasionally, he was indeed that poor soul, cutting that path (bless him).
I don’t like the metaphor of following in someone’s footsteps. Something about it always felt like it meant subscribing to an idea of fate, often familial, rather than finding (or making) a path in life for yourself. But that didn’t stop me from doing it.
I used to ask for advice. All the time. I was looking for someone to walk ahead. I did not want snow in my boots. But now I see I need to have snow in my boots. Every day. I need my feet to be cold and to find my own way of warming them up.
Enough with the metaphor, though. Spend too much time in the land of metaphor, and you start to feel ill, like you’ve been living in a hotel for weeks without a proper home cooked meal.
Optimizing for avoiding suffering is perhaps a waste of energy and has all sorts of side effects. It adds another layer of deference to your elders, which while perhaps respectful, means you might not be listening to yourself, and instead means you amplify what anyone with a few years on you says.
Ask for advice all the time, and you’ll stop making your own mistakes. Mistakes are what make your life yours. They give you unique experiences that only you can have. And why that matters is up to you to find out. Besides, if you’re not used to making mistakes, you’ll also not be so used to forgiving yourself and laughing at yourself for stumbling through the brush and getting lost when it does come to pass.
There are a few people in my life who have been blunt enough to shake me out of the trances I’ve been in — of telling me that they can’t live my life for me. What an unpleasant surprise. You mean I have to figure this out myself? Actual, true personal growth? Disgusting. I’ll stay here in this rut.
Before we wrap up this little musing, let’s talk about advice, for a moment.
How many people in your life ask you for advice? People actually saying hey, I could use some advice. Rarely, for me. But for many years I treated venting, sharing personal emotions, commiserating and complaining as a cue for someone wanting advice. I thought everyone, like me, wanted advice.
Would you like my advice?
No, literally—I mean right now? Read on.
Don’t treat people sharing their emotions, their problems, as something to solve. Don’t give advice unless you are asked for it. Oh, and if you really want to give advice? If you feel so utterly compelled? At least ask first.
Being confided in is not a pass to espouse what you think a person needs. Solution-ing can feel good for you (how nice, for you), but offering someone the opportunity to be heard—in this world? (and god-damn, it’s a loud world)—well, why make it so a person has to shout to be heard? That’s a gift you can give. I’m learning how to give that gift. Clumsily, most of the time. But learning.
That field I used to walk through to get home—it’s a distant memory. It’s from another life, it seems. I’m finding new fields, though, and I’m plodding along, tentatively, but getting stronger and less cautious with each step.
I go, looking forward yet also looking down on myself from above, as the birds, the sky, and the clouds do—I am in all these places—but importantly, I am walking along. It is cold sometimes, and I am hearing new things.