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How Can I Give Advice?

February 5, 2017 | by Emuna Braverman

With too many variables and unknowns, how do I know what’s right for you, your husband or your child?

My inbox has been flooded recently with letter after letter requesting advice – for complicated personal situations, for marriage, for parenting, for education. The problem is that, appearances to the contrary, I don’t like dispensing advice. It’s too much responsibility. It’s too much power. There are too many variables and too many unknowns.

How do I know what’s right for you, your husband or your child? I can’t even state with confidence that I know what’s right for my own family, let alone decide for yours. The challenge is that, much as we want the perfect answer, life is just full of unknowables. There is no “perfect” answer; there is only our best effort under the circumstances.

And even when we put in that best effort, after painstaking research and thought, the results may not be what we desire. Because all outcomes are out of our control; they’re in the Almighty’s hands.

So I can give you guidelines and suggestions, I can give you sympathy and empathy and maybe, through those tools, applied with love, you can work it out yourself. But advice? I hesitate. What if it’s wrong? Although the outcome is out of our control, I am held accountable for bad advice. I’m afraid of that.

And I think we all should be. Yes, the Almighty is the ultimate arbiter of people’s lives but we don’t ever want to act in such a way as to try to control the actions of others. This is not taking responsibility; it is abdicating it.

There is a heady sense of power that therapists (and some rabbis and teachers) may feel when someone turns to them to “solve” their problems and that must be resisted. Real lives are at stake, real emotions, real people.

I have a friend who went through a rough time in his marriage. Details aren’t necessary but suffice it to say that it was bad. Many of his “friends” counseled divorce. “Why would you stay with her?” they asked in a puzzled tone. The pressure was on and he was miserable. The misery in his marriage was actually compounded rather than alleviated by the insistent messages of his friends.

Stepping back and working things out for himself, he decided to give the marriage another shot, to work harder and behave with greater compassion and understanding. That was 15 years ago and they couldn’t be happier as they prepare to celebrate the wedding of their oldest child.

I shudder (and I’m sure he does too) to think of the tragedy that would have occurred had he listened to the “advice” of all of his well-meaning friends. As I always like to remind people, if someone else advises you not to marry that woman, or to divorce than man, they continue to go home to their happy relationship while you go home alone. They are neither objective nor do they always have only your best interests at heart. Our own motivations are so complex and not fully known, even by ourselves, that to imagine that others have any greater control or understanding of why they act the way they do or say what they say is naïve at best and foolishly destructive at worst.

So I’ve had to write some painful letters this week, explaining my reluctance to give advice, especially to strangers who live thousands of miles away, whose lives and concerns I can barely begin to imagine and whose choices I certainly don’t want to exercise any control over. It’s been hard and challenging. It’s tempting to be considered the “all-wise” and “all-knowing” adviser but as the expression goes, “who died and made you God?”

I’m always available to listen but please don’t ask me to decide for you. It may be briefly tempting but it’s ultimately your life and your job to do your best to choose wisely and well.

Now I’m just working on applying this wisdom to my relationship with my children…

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