I’ve been thinking about advice this week. I’ve been thinking about the good advice I have been given in my life, and the advice I would give to a young person if I were asked, and the advice I would give now to my twenty-one year old self.
The two best pieces of advice I ever heard came twenty-five years apart.
The first was from an older and much wiser friend. I was twenty-two, painfully in love with the wrong person, and flailing. She looked at me, very gently, and said: ‘Would you rather be proud? Or would you rather be happy?’
One could parse this and unpick it and examine it from all angles. One could put nuances on it and argue with it. But at the time, it made immediate and profound sense to me and I think of it still, every single week of my life.
What I think it meant was: misplaced pride will only make you miserable. Pretending you are untouchable when you are not, or able to do something without help, or doing fine when you are falling to pieces, will not bring you peace or joy. Humility and vulnerability might seem like hard and painful things, but in the end, being humble and vulnerable will make you a much happier human than being proud ever could.
The second piece of stellar advice came from one of my best beloveds, one who goes back all the way. We have been friends since we were eighteen, and I can’t imagine my life without her. Only last year, she introduced me to a new theory she had carved out. It was, whenever faced with a confusion or a difficult decision or just sheer raw pain or fear, think of what is the worst that can happen in that specific scenario. The answer often comes very quickly, rising from the subconscious like a trout to a fly. It often goes something like: I will fail, people will laugh, I will be left alone, I will be heartbroken. Then, you ask yourself if you can deal with it. Most often, the answer is yes. It will be hard, but the worst will not sink you. This makes taking the decision or facing the fearful thing much, much easier.
I also think you need a really good friend to go through this with. I remember mapping out one such disastrous scene with the very beloved who invented the theory. We were riding together. Over our heads, there was a bright spring sky; under us, the good horses were moving easily and kindly. In my head, all was darkness and bafflement.
‘What is the worst that can happen? she asked.
I told her.
I faced it. I contemplated it. I examined the worst from all angles. I thought I could weather it. She thought so too.
And you know the funny thing? The worst did happen, in that particular play. The final curtain did not ring down on triumph, but on messy failure.
It was difficult. It did hurt. The ramifications rippled on for months afterwards. (They can catch me still, on a bad day.) But because of that ride with that good friend, because of contemplating the crash with another sympathetic human heart, I damn well did get through it.
I think now, what would I tell someone of the Younger Niece’s generation, if they should ask for some of my aunt-ish advice? What is the most important thing I have learnt in these forty-seven years?
I have nothing very pithy. I think I might say something like: don’t disdain the unshowy virtues. Brilliance and wit and talent are all very well, but what really gets you through are the quiet virtues, like reliability, and gentleness, and dogged determination, and consistency, and patience. I would recommend my old friends, kindness and stoicism.
I think I would say: not everything is about you. Don’t make it all about you.
I may add: the things you think are the end of the world almost always are not.
There are the very obvious ones – don’t be afraid to fail; don’t be frightened of being wrong; risk falling flat on your face and be the first to laugh at yourself if you do.
I would say: empathy is an awful word, but a lovely thing to be able to do.
I would obviously tell them never to dangle their modifiers.
I would insist that human beings have much more that unites them than divides them, and that most divisions are mere constructs, hardly more than flickering shadows on the cave wall.
Something like that. I admit it needs a little work.
Everything I know comes from somebody or somewhere else: from humans I have loved, books I have read, unexpected voices on the radio, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Yeats and TS. I think the only original idea about existence that I ever came up with is not really original at all, it is just that I thought it for myself rather than pinching it. It is quite recent, and I like it.
It is: are you living a life or proving a point?
I suspect this says more about my own flaws than revealing any great wisdom, but still, it is useful in my own mazy mind. I think I may have spent quite a lot of time trying to prove a point. Look at me, with my step ball change and my jazz hands. Now, I don’t want to prove anything. I am too old for that, too chipped around the edges. I want to live a quiet Scottish life, a life that is useful in some small way, a life that adds rather than subtracts, with these trees and these blue hills and this red mare and this lurcher dog and this good earth.
Will you tell me yours? The best advice you ever got, the best you ever gave, the best you give yourself?
Only if you have time, of course.
As I finished this, I went next door. The kind Sister has given me a delightful chair. It is upholstered in very pale colours, and since I live a life of animals and mud, I put a blanket to protect it, in case the dog sat on it. The dog, it turns out, is sitting on it. I think Stan the Man has found his new favourite place.
It’s not for everyone, but some of my best advice ever would be, of course: get a dog.
Hills and earth and sky:
Grass and heather:
Every morning she greets me:
I love this one, even though she had come too close and I was all out of focus. It makes me think of Stubbs, for some odd reason. And sometimes I like including my mistakes:
PS. Wrote 2445 words today and edited the manuscript to the end. Tomorrow, I start the third draft. So, even though I hate excuses, I must confess that my eyes are squinting and my brain has gone. Which means: THERE WILL BE TYPOS. Forgive me.